Prodigal cat

by Linda Ryan

One of my boys went walkabout for a bit this morning. I had held the door open for just a few seconds too long and out he went, tail straight up with enthusiasm and racing away as if celebrating a release from jail. He hadn't done this for a couple of years and I thought I had made his life pleasant enough that he wouldn't do it again but I was wrong. He exemplified carpé diem to the max.

Ok, I'm talking about one of my three boy cats (my little girl doesn't mind being lumped with them as long as she gets her share of attention and treats), the four of whom constitute my main reason for getting up in the morning. To them I am staff -- not mistress, not always mom, but always staff to wait on them, clean up after them, provide their meals and facilities, and give out frequent pats, scritches and occasional treats.

Back to Sama, the walkabout cat. He was out of sight before I could say "Boo" or even, "Here, Sama!" I got him within sight but he bounded off behind the neighbor's trailer. I went to the far side of her lot but no Sama. Calling gently so as not to upset the neighbors I walked around but still no Sama. I went back in the house for a few minutes and went out again. He was over by the rosebush by one of the sheds, eating grass. I called him again and was roundly ignored. I went back in the house. I came back out a few more minutes later to find no Sama so I walked back to the back and then over to the other side of my neighbor's house. No Sama -- until I looked at the rosemary bush next to the step up to the patio. There I saw big yellow eyes, a black face and a red collar. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to be reasonable and come back in the house but instead he disappeared again. I went back in the house. A few more minutes and when I looked outside, there he was near the front stoop. Here's my chance, I thought. This time I wasn't going barehanded. I had a plan.

Treats for the boys are truly that -- very occasional special stuff that they have to take turns getting. I think of it as a feline form of communion. If a cat sits there and waits his/her turn, s/he gets a treat from the package. And they know the sound of that package being removed from the drawer next to my desk. Oh, yes. One little rustle of the package and I usually have four furry friends in the immediate vicinity. This morning I only had three when I opened the package but I still had a plan. Sama was out on the patio, near the door and so I opened it and rustled the package while saying softly, "Sama, treat!" There was a flicker of interest but not much. I put a couple in my hand so he could see they would be there and opened the door a bit wider. FAIL. Off he went back to the rosebush again.

Back in the house for a few more minutes. Look outside, no Sama. Wait a few more -- and there he was by the stoop again. This time I went out with the package and rustled it. Hmmm. A flicker of interest, it appeared. He seemed to be in the mood for petting so I stroked the end of his tail, the only part of him I could reach. Ok, we were back on more familiar ground. He presented his ears and then his back and then his ears again. This time I managed to get off the stoop, scoop him up and, with him purring mightily, back into the house. Needless to say, everybody got another round of treats, but this time in small piles here and there so that everybody got some, including Sama. Within a couple of minutes he was stretched out on my desk, no doubt contemplating the greater world outside vs. the comfort (and treats) inside. Now he's on the top cradle of the cat-tree, looking out the front window and no doubt planning his next foray which, I'm afraid, will be the next time I open the door to go in or out.

During this whole thing I thought about the story of the prodigal son and thought that perhaps it would do to pay a little attention to the story of the anxious father. We get most of the story from the POV of the prodigal, what he did while he was gone, his thought processes and his reflective journey back to what would probably be a sort of jail without bars. If he were lucky, he would be able to count on at least a job tending animals but he knew too that his father wouldn't let any of his workers go hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, though, what of the father? The story tells of the older brother who has been working hard, doing what he was supposed to do and not being very happy about having his inheritance diminished and one less hand around the place to help with the work. But the father? What of him?

I thought about my Sama outside in a world he really doesn't know anything about except that it is big and it has a lot of alluring things in it: grass to chew, other cats to chase, lots of different smells to sniff, places to rub, and things to investigate that never show up inside the house. The prodigal had a great time on his walkabout but I was a wreck. What if he got hit by a car? Even with a posted speed of 5 mph, cars zip by this house like it was a speedway or something sometimes. What if another cat attacked him for being an interloper? What if he got lost and couldn't find his way home? What if, what if, what if? I imagine the prodigal's father had those same kinds of thoughts and, I imagine, he probably went to the door a dozen times a day, hoping to see a familiar figure coming down the road. I know the frustration and fear he would have felt, hoping against hope but not seeing the one thing he most wanted to see.

Luckily, both stories have happy endings with the prodigals returning home and a celebration following. What I am left with is a contemplation of what it means to love and lose, even if briefly and even if the prodigal is only out of sight for a few minutes. While I realize the story of the prodigal son was a parable Jesus told to illustrate how much God loves me (and all the other prodigals in the world), it took Sama to make me look at it through a different set of lenses, that of the father who gave his son the freedom he desired and who never stopped looking for him to return home safely.
It makes me also realize that all the characters in the story are me at some time or other in my life. Today, though, I'm the rejoicing parent. My prodigal is once again home, a celebration has been held and things are (more or less) back to normal.

Thanks be to God.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Raising the bar on pub theology

by Sam Laurent

Talking about church stuff in a bar! Can you believe it? Such is the energy behind innumerable articles and blog posts about pub theology, theology on tap (that one's trademarked, so proceed with that awareness), or any other name for getting together in a bar to talk about church stuff. I've been a leader for one such program, which we call Indulgences, for two and a half years now, with some sessions really taking off into something beautiful, some not so much, and a good amount of trial and error in between. This model has been around long enough that I don't think it counts as edgy or innovative anymore, and my main point here is that it never was terribly edgy or innovative, and edginess and innovation really have nothing to do with good pub theologizing, anyway. Those values, in and of themselves, offer little for the folks who come out for a pint and some discussion, and also don't give much to the life of the church, other than maybe some hypothetical bragging rights.

Right at the top, let me be clear that doing pub theology is terrific, and I don't want to discourage it at all. Quite to the contrary, I think it can be a vital part of how we engage our faith and our negotiation of the complex and mysterious waters of Christianity. Talk about church stuff in a bar! Do it!

But don't do it to make your church look cool. If that's the motivation or expectation, you can expect the engagement with it to go no deeper than the superficial trappings of the event. And it will quickly grow stale. If the novelty of being at a “church thing” in a bar (or “beer church” as one friend calls it) is the primary energy you bring to the event, then you may find yourself casting seeds on rocky soil.

I like to think of our Indulgences sessions as an intentional reclamation of the pub atmosphere as a place to discuss theology. My inspiration for this comes from the beers of England, many of which have rather low alcohol contents, and are termed “session ales.” They're meant for folks who gather at the pub and talk for hours, so they can drink for a while with friends and still possess their faculties. So the story goes, anyway. So, my love for English bitters (on cask!) has an ideological facet to it.

The idea of a pub as a place to gather, enjoy company, and to engage in something more than just small talk has a tremendous appeal, and can be a refreshing thing for churches, where cultures of clericalism or a simple forgetfulness of the fact that church teachings arise from living discussions can stifle difference and conversation. Rocky soil, you see. Pub theology can do some tilling. The informality of the setting, the ritual of having a pint (or whatever...), and the act of gathering around a table all help open up a space for discussion, and indeed it is the discussion that is rewarding.

With this aim at a pub discussion, a few guidelines come into view.

First, it must always be a discussion. Lectures and classes are suited to other venues, but to me, the point of doing theology in a bar is to open up a conversation. At the Advocate, we try to choose topics that are live issues within the church and in the wider world, and we don't shy away from debating. After all, the tradition of debating in bars is time-honored. So folks who lead these sessions need to shift out of traditional Christian education mode, and let things be looser. I make handouts for our sessions, with a few passages of scripture or theology which can serve as grounding points for our discussion, and I generally open things up with a quick introduction of the topic, but that's the extent to which I intentionally plan out the conversation. As a leader, I certainly try to facilitate deep discussion, but I don't need to control what that discussion sounds like.

A lot of this, especially for folks accustomed to a more traditional role of teacher or instructor, is a matter taking on the discipline of letting it be a pub conversation. Unlike some other program offerings, pub theologizing will often actively resist any attempt to end up with a designated belief or doctrine being agreed upon. Rather than insisting on consensus, we aim to get ideas out on the table that we can use in our thinking, praying, and living, to test-drive those ideas and see how they work. We often tackle a genuinely big question and end up in a genuinely ambivalent space at the end of the session. Those have been my favorite sessions.

So go talk about church stuff in a bar. It's a good thing to do, and it's a lot of fun. But don't think of the bar as just a change of venue. It changes the ethos, shifts the tone of the conversation, and inherently decentralizes it, which is to be commended, I think. Moreover, by providing a less formal place, where people don't feel the eyes of church hierarchy holding their every statement up to the yardstick of orthodoxy, pub theology reveals levels of honesty and frankness that often aren't ventured on Sundays. And that is very good. We say that all opinions are welcome, and I feel obligated to honor that, as a matter of hospitality and honesty. If we aren't debating, if we aren't questioning deeply and courageously, if we aren't saying “oh, that's a really great way to think about it”... if we aren't really digging into some aspect of our life with God, then I think we're missing the opportunity that pub theology programs provide us. Frank and thoughtful discussion is a beautiful and engaging thing.

So I'll close by admitting that I often head into our Indulgences sessions with a bit of nervousness, because I don't know what folks will say. As a leader at these gatherings, I'm supposed to be able to help facilitate a good conversation, to ask provocative questions, and to offer something that would seem to justify my years of graduate work. So the necessarily open-ended structure of our sessions is not the most calming, ahead of time. But it really pays off every time someone offers an honest and insightful thought that energizes the whole conversation, and sends us into a space that none of us could have outlined on our own. It's easy to make jokes about doing theology in a bar, and indeed the title of those programs rightfully ought to indulge a little cheesy humor, but when the Holy Spirit gets some traction in our conversations, I'm always glad I didn't try to lecture or indoctrinate. Not in a pub.

Sam Laurent Ph.D. is the resident theologian at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC and director of the Center for Theological Engagement

A catholic future for the Episcopal Church

by Jared C. Cramer

As I approach nearly ten years worshiping in the Episcopal Church, including nearly five as a priest of the church, I’m struck by what first drew me into the church as someone in his young twenties. Though I was raised in an evangelical tradition, it was one that emphasized both the early church and the importance of reason, study, and intellect in the practice of the Christian faith. The more I studied in my undergraduate and graduate work, the more I found myself drawn to a more ancient expression of Christianity, one that didn’t view the early church merely as an historic curiosity, but instead as a group to whom we were organically connected. I began to realize that certain ideas I had been told were “catholic innovations” growing up—ideas like the Presence of Christ in Communion, a hierarchical structure, the veneration of saints—these were actually important concepts in the church from her earliest centuries.

For the past five years, my priestly ministry has been deeply shaped by a group known as the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. The Society began in England in the mid-nineties as a place for Anglo-Catholic clergy who also supported the ordination of women and of gay and lesbian Christians. It believed that the ideals of the catholic heritage of Anglicanism were not only essential, but that they needed a resurgence in the church today.

Five years ago, along with a handful of colleagues, the Society came to North America. Over that five years we have grown to count over two hundred priests, deacons, bishops, or vowed religious among our membership. We have hosted Annual Conferences in New Haven, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Plans are now underway for our Fifth Annual Conference in Philadelphia.

And, I must say, I believe the mission of the Society is a tremendously important one in the Episcopal Church today. We are not a political organization. Whereas our mother Society in England is still spending significant time fighting on behalf of our female and GLBT colleagues, we have a different context in the Episcopal Church. We absolutely embrace all those ordained to Holy Orders in our church… but our true charism moves beyond that. We have two twin aims: the cultivation of priestly spirituality and the growth of catholic evangelism.

Originally, the founding membership of the Society wrestled with the role lay people might play in our life. We decided in those first years that the focus should be on honing our identity and providing a place for deepening the spirituality of our clergy. However, we also increasingly discovered the gifts lay people were bringing to the aims of priestly spirituality and catholic evangelism. Many of us have lay spiritual directors who keep our ministries centered on the person and teaching of Christ. All of our conferences have had presenters who were lay academics, enriching our understanding of the church and of what catholic evangelism might look like in the twentieth century. People like Dr. Derek Olsen, a leading lay voice in the church on questions of liturgy and the church, along with being a contributor to Episcopal Café, have brought profound depth to our Conference experiences.

The Society is certainly not simply a “gin and lace” group—our discussions have focused on questions regarding church planting, the faithful practice of hearing and making confession, healing ministry, and beauty in the church. Of course, there is still a bit of gin and lace among us—we are, after all, a society of Anglo-Catholics—but the center of our existence is much deeper than that.

As we have developed and grown, the question of lay involvement has been more pressing and has resulted in a significant change for our 2013 Conference. Registration has opened to include lay and ordained guests, those who may be interested or curious about the Society, but who are not members. With speakers ranging from former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to gifted author and retreat leader Martin Smith, we are hopeful that we will indeed be joined in Philadelphia by a broader group of Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Church of Canada.

It’s sort of cliché these days to say that the Episcopal Church stands at a crossroads. As some of the debates of the latter twentieth-century begin to subside, we will need to ask how modern Anglicans will define themselves. We are absolutely a church that welcomes all, that affirms and celebrates the gifts of all baptized Christians, regardless of gender or sexual orientation… but can we be more than that?

What might it mean for us now to move more deeply into the spiritual practice of the church? What might it mean for us to seek, through sacrament and piety, to find old and new ways of conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ? How might the riches of our theological and liturgical heritage bring a new sense of beauty and the divine to the lives of twenty-first century North Americans who are unsure what good, if any, the church has to do in the world?

Many of the members of the Society, myself included, believe that we are on the cusp of a new revival in the Episcopal Church. The membership of the Society skews particularly young, as our strongest growing segments are seminarians and clergy under 35. Our conversations are filled with experience of younger people entering the church, looking not for a political sermon (whether from the right or the left) that merely confirms what they already think, but instead looking for an experience with the Divine Mystery.

Yes, I do believe that we are on the cusp of a possible new revival in the Episcopal Church. As we engage in the work of restructuring, as we seek to re-imagine what Anglican Christianity looks like in North America, I believe that by diving deep into our rich heritage we can reclaim a way forward that invites us into a way of life that is more than individual wants, needs, or preferences.

And I hope, I dearly hope, that all baptized members of this church, whether lay or ordained, who want to explore what this vision might look like, will join my sister and brothers in the Society in Philadelphia as we explore the Catholic Future of the Episcopal Church.

More information on the Society can be found online here.
Information on the Fifth Annual Conference is here.


The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, MI, and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is also on the Provincial Council of the Society of Catholic Priests. His reflections on life and ministry can be found at carewiththecure.blogspot.com

Reason, Nature, Experience and Data, and What's So

by Donald Schell

Part II. more on the “three-legged stool”

I just read four very different books in quick succession that each seemed to add something to the question of how we know the truth, how much truth we can know, and how we blind ourselves to the truth when we do that instead of knowing it.
As I read, I kept asking myself –

What is reason?

How do we test conclusions or trust the value of anything we do?

Whose witness do we trust?

Why do we listen to one another?


In their very different ways and considering very different material, the four books each contributed to a practice of reasoned reflection that values evidence, that’s holistic, and that is inevitably relational.

The New Atheists in their arguments with doctrinaire theology would reduce all religious discourse to irrationality. Richard Dawkins and other of the New Atheists appear anecdotally in Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free, 10 Paths to New Discovery. Sheldrake is a distinguished British biologist. Some of the New Atheists are his scientific colleagues. And he faults them for lack of scientific rigor or genuine inquiry.

Sheldrake argues that science in the public forum (and the simple matter of what research gets funded) reduce complex questions and working hypotheses to matters of doctrine. In his book and in several lectures and papers he’s offered around the book, Sheldrake sketches the ten “dogmas” -
Sheldrake, a well-established research biologist, challenges ten scientific dogmas –

- that nature is mechanical
- that matter is unconscious
- that the laws of nature are fixed
- that the total amount of matter and energy is constant
- that nature is purposeless
- that biological inheritance is material
- that memories are stored as material traces in the brain
- that the mind is in the brain
- that telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory and
- that mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

With each of these ten “dogmas,” some scientists will tell you that these ten items are certainties (or if they say “virtual certainties,” they seem to mean that they ought not be questioned). Challenging each “dogma,” Sheldrake offers solid experimental evidence, data, that simply asks us to reconsider (frame experiments to gather more data) whether these ten fixed principles are actually true. And Sheldrake insists that scientific knowledge (and knowledge’s useful partners in admitted scientific ignorance and in scientific curiosity) loses its legitimacy when it refuses to reconsider settled principle where new data doesn’t fit and can’t be interpreted away. Sheldrake reminds us that a scientific method of inquiry must remain constantly open to – experience - new observations, new data that ask to be included and integrated into the conversation and made part of the next moment’s knowing.

While Sheldrake had me thinking about reason, reasoning and how we know, and, (from a faith perspective) continuing respect for what we don’t know, I heard Maureen Corrigan’s NPR review of Henry Wiencek’s book, Master of the Mountain, Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek writes a well-documented intellectual biography that addresses again the question of the great Enlightenment teacher and theoretician of Freedom being a slaveholder and active apologist of slavery among his slaveholding peers. Jefferson’s best writing is electrifying and his vision for valuing all humanity in freedom a legacy for which we can be grateful. His reasoning seemed inconsistent on the issue (and practice) of slavery. Listening to the review, I thought, this is the same Jefferson who spent his evenings in the White House crafted a Jesus who made more sense to him but cutting and editing the Gospels with scissors and tape. I was eager to read the troubling evidence of the teacher of Freedom’s practice as a slave-owner to see how he squared his thinking and eloquent writing about Freedom with his practice as “Master of the Mountain,” the owner, builder and director of Monticello. What do “sense” and Reason mean if we listen deeply to Jefferson and watch him at work?

Wiencek’s book shows a man whose careful thinking can offer us elegant prose and well-argued progressive opinions in one discourse and rationalize completely different policy and counsel in another discourse. What he says depends on who he’s talking to. To his New England colleagues among the Founders of the nation and his French Enlightenment friends, Jefferson spoke of the glories of freedom and lamented how much he abhorred slavery. Jefferson’s passionate advocacy of freedom and democracy originally led him to write a whole abolitionist section into the Declaration of Independence. Inheriting many slaves (some of them mixed race descendants of his father-in-law) and managing a great estate touched Jefferson’s thinking. He continued to be a theoretician of freedom in political discourse in America and in Europe, but, as a practical slaver, he claimed African-ancestry slaves couldn’t be taught significant skills and were unable to take care of themselves, even though he also boasted that his cook and cabinetmaker (and others of his slaves) were probably the most skilled in America. To his fellow slave owners, Jefferson was a theoretician and apologist for slavery. When a young neighboring landowner resolved to sell his holdings, free the slaves, and journey with them to Ohio where he’d buy land for himself and each of them, Jefferson tried desperately to dissuade him.

The book is a painful but fascinating read. Reason and rationalization live in close alliance. I was reading to understand more of the Enlightenment’s understanding of Reason. For Jefferson at least, the logic and rationality the Enlightenment proclaimed our highest function allowed him as a slave-owner to live in luxury tended by his wife’s enslaved half-siblings and his own offspring. What trapped him in contradiction wasn’t a failure of thought but a failure of heart. He couldn’t acknowledge the giftedness of his own children or love them as a father and keep them enslaved. So he closed his heart. Like of any of us, what Jefferson knew “by reason” could silence moral reflection and self-scrutiny when we fail to think (as Parker Palmer frames it) “with the mind in the heart.”

So, is “thinking with the mind in the heart” advocating for pure intuition, for letting feelings define our moral thinking? No, the useful question is what kinds of thinking (and “kinds” is deliberately plural) free us from prejudice and folly.

My wife works for an International NGO doing HIV/AIDS work in Africa. We’re familiar with the question of whether foreign assistance actually contributes to positive change. Partly, the answer rests with the heart and morals – “we’ve got to try!” Data does seem to support real change, at least sometimes, but some efforts prove massively ill-conceived and misdirected. Sometimes foreign assistance causes bigger problems than it solves. How do we know how to act? Unexpectedly those were exactly the questions I heard Abjihit Banerjee and Ester Duflo addressing on NPR’s program, Planet Money.

Banerjee and Duflo are Harvard and M.I.T. economists. Their book, which I’m now grateful to have read, is, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Like Rupert Sheldrake, they argue for testing results against data. The questions they’re addressing are questions of doing good. What kinds of help actually give people the means to improve the quality of their lives? Is micro-lending effective? Does it unleash the entrepreneurial genius of the poor? If it’s effective, what are its limitations? Should we invest in education of the poor? What makes kids stay in school beyond a year or two? Just how does education make a difference? Like Sheldrake, they’re writing in territory that’s dense with dogma – economists with their theories of human nature and the value or dilemma of capital making broad, contradictory statements about what’s possible and what works. Repeatedly, they find that actual systematic study of results contradicts the principled generalizations. Change and the possibility to do good are real, complex, and both require steady attention to specific goals and specific means of implementation. Reading their work, I had several instances of my own settled, “of course we know…” overturned.

Finally, I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. The book is both challenging and exhilarating. This one and Rupert Sheldrake’s were the two of these four books which kept me thinking, “I wish more Episcopalians would read this book.” Andrew Solomon, gay and a non-practicing Jew, writes about parenting, identity politics and identity communities, and family’s and extended communities’ practice of inclusion. The book is dense with the storytelling from Solomon’s ten years of in-depth interviews and staying in conversation with families over time, his ten years of review of the research into how families included (or marginalized or rejected) their children who were gay, deaf, dwarves, had Downs Syndrome, were disabled, prodigies, children born of rape, were criminals, or transgendered, and his ten years of study and reflection on how science and medicine, education, sociology, and policy have attempted to address each of these different extraordinary identities.

This is a big book – 700 pages, and each chapter on specific difference is fifty to seventy-five pages long. Some of the stories he tells are hair-raising. Some are as revealing of courage and love as anything I’ve read anywhere. Solomon listens with remarkably little judgment. He’s more determined to sustain compassion and listen for understanding than he is to find answers. But, almost despite himself, he does come to one answer,

“I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon – that much as loving one’s family can be means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, because, when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. The affection my family have found in one another [his family is two gay fathers with children, and he tells all the stories of how and with whom] is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.”

I carry my experience of these four books back to liturgy and to my daily reading of the Bible. Each teaches something essential about knowing, about the human heart, about how we care for one another, about how we listen. The readers of Scripture and church teachers and preachers I trust most are in ongoing conversations and inquiries like these. The ways of nature and of wholly embodied reason and mind have much to teach us of who God is and who we are.

What are you reading? Whose inquiries and discoveries outside our community of faith shapes your vision of God and God’s work healing and reconciling humankind?

Read Part 1 here.


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Reason, Logic, and the Logos: the 3 legged stool and beyond

by Donald Schell

Part 1

Some of the reading that most challenges and expands my theological thinking isn’t theological at all. In the piece that follows this, I’ll offer how some recent reading has me thinking again about Reason, Logic, and the Logos, listening for a non-religious critique of some cultural predispositions that show up when faith is vilified as inherently irrational.

I suspect my reading experience – finding inspiration in texts by unbelievers and practitioners of other religions - is true for many Episcopalians. Believing that any search for truth brings us closer to the Truth, we value honest inquiry. Episcopalians value scripture and tradition, but we also, most of us, think voices outside church tradition may help us know God. Part of what steers us away from Christian exclusivism and toward a more universal understanding of the Spirit’s work is that we ourselves, sometimes at least find God in our conversations with reflective unbelievers and people practicing other religions

When we want to make it absolutely clear that this openness to inquiry and discovery is legitimately Anglican (and Christian), we’re likely to invoke Richard Hooker’s “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. We might add that reason shapes our knowing of God, and that the truth -wherever we’re learning it – must point to the Truth we know in Christ because ultimately all Truth is one.

These are good moves. I trust them, as far as they go, and I want to reflect on some recent reading, because I think we need to go further. Specifically, with large segments of our culture and society interpreting faith and religious practice as inevitably dogmatic, intolerant and unreasonable, we, as Anglicans, will do well to reflect on what we mean by “reason” and how we’re open to it (and how it opens us).

Hooker won’t get us all the way we need to go. To begin with Richard Hooker didn’t actually give us the image of a three-legged stool and likely would protest a simple, balanced treatment that suggested Scripture, tradition, and reason were of equal importance. The oft-cited “three-legged stool” is a bit of Episcopal folklore based on a distillation (and reinterpretation) of Hooker. A three-legged stool suggests equal reliance on scripture, tradition and reason. Several (often conservative) sources will tell us that Hooker was a lot closer to Sola Scriptura than today’s liberal Episcopalians. Sola Scriptura was a Reformation battle cry teaching that Christians can/should acknowledge only the authority of the Bible. Sola Scriptura teaches that we only know God through God’s revelation of God’s self in the Bible. Hooker knew there was something more that allowed us to read Scripture critically and reflectively, but apparently this quotation is as close as he came to our “three-legged stool,”

“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever. “ (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)
If someone who knows Hooker well wants to supply other quotations, I’d welcome them. But at least here Hooker isn’t talking about three equal and inter-dependent sources of authority.

Instead Hooker gives first priority to the plain meaning of scripture, next to what one can bring to it by force of reason, and last to what the church (by ecclesiastical authority) thinks and defines to be true and good. Hooker certainly does mean to offer us a trustworthy means of interpreting Scripture. And he’s insisting on the essential importance of interpretation. While a fundamentalist might proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” responsible Christian theology has always acknowledged that even purported revelation requires interpretation and that, at some level, the test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense. Whether we’re talking interpretation or inquiry (more on those two to come), we’re looking for what seems and feels reasonable and coherent.

Hooker offers reason as part of a transparent interpretative process that couldn’t be reduced to the simplistic proof-texting of the fundamentalist “I believe it, that settles.”
Like many Episcopalians, thinking about Hooker’s helpful invitation to a deliberate and open interpretative process, I’d hope that what he meant by “reason” might, in some way include experience. As a pre-Enlightenment thinker shaped by medieval scholastic theology, I think we can make the case that Hooker’s “Reason” is something more layered and complex than simple “rationality.” But truthfully if he didn’t mean to include it, I’d push to include it myself. Others have said the same thing.

In fact in 1964, Wesley scholar Charles Outler offered that in the 18th century John Wesley had turned Hooker’s three-legged stool into a quadrilateral - Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

For those attendant to metaphor, I’ll note that Outler wasn’t suggesting adding a leg to make a three-legged stool into a four-legged stool. The utilitarian advantage of a three-legged stool is that it stands firm even on rough, uneven ground, because three points, the end of the three legs, always defines a plane. A three-legged stool can sit us securely anywhere. A well-made four-legged chair feels solid in a house if the floors are really flat and level. Staying with the three-legged stool image, I’m inclined to join with those who want to make one leg “Reason-and-Experience.”
But Outler suggests a “quadrilateral,” which isn’t just a four-sided geometric shape – it’s also what the Chicago-Lambeth gatherings of bishop (beginning with an 1886 meeting of our American house of bishops) proposed as grounds of unity and authority in the church:

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

I’m guessing Outler offers a different Quadrilateral because he wants to offer as Wesleyan (and Hooker-based) response to what American and Lambeth bishops were asking, “What’s essential and how does it work?” It’s too bad to lose the stool, but Outler’s new metaphor reminds us that our real question is how we meet and know God. How does God speak to us?

As a somewhat contrarian Anglican, hearing Outler explain how Wesley addressed those questions, I’d say that Outler betters the Lambeth Quadrilateral by offering not just a small library of received texts and a couple of forms for sacramental practice – yes, what I see in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but an implicit process of engaging scripture by means of tradition, reason and experience (so, to that extent, doing something like Hooker himself did). In other words, like Hooker, Outler says Wesley was sticking with the question of interpretation.

Does Wesley add something essential that Hooker had missed? I think the answer is both yes and no. It’s worth noting that between Hooker and Wesley, the Enlightenment took center stage and made some exaggerated claims for Reason. Descartes suggested thinking was what made us human (and could prove to ourselves that we existed).

As theologian of the first Anglican generation after the Reformation, Richard Hooker was a Renaissance thinker. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and wrote in the reign of Elizabeth I.

John Wesley, also an Anglican theologian, lived and worked in the last generation of the Enlightenment and saw its best fruit in the American and French revolutions, and had also seen its inconsistencies up close in a visit to Georgia’s slave economy. Wesley died shortly before the French revolution’s rationalist embrace of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity devolved into the reign of terror.

Hooker’s Renaissance understanding of reason carries forward and renews the complex scholastic inquiry into how we know, how understanding works, and how mystery and fact are inescapably intertwined. As an Anglican formed in the medieval scholastics, Hooker would understand that Reason includes more than logic or pure rationality.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, Wesley was breaking ranks with established cultural and intellectual norms when he put experience alongside reason, giving weight to both. Whatever Hooker or other Renaissance thinks may have meant by “reason,” with the Enlightenment, Reason had become the precise, logical reasoning that era exalted as our highest human function.

Would Hooker or Wesley claim we know God through natural theology, that the world we know around us can teach us valuable lessons about God and how God works? Well, they’d be likelier to than their own era’s fundamentalists. But would they go as far as we (I) might hope they’d go? Probably not.

So, full disclosure, whatever Hooker (or his later interpreters) might say, the Episcopal church’s acknowledging that way of knowing, even informally or by broad lay consensus was part of what drew me to our Church. I’d grown up in a Christian context where we were taught that we could learn nothing of God from our reasoning or experience. Hoping it was wisdom rather than hubris, I knew I didn’t trust that narrowing of the doorway or window to truth. I felt the presence of God or the Spirit in the human bravery and inspiration that creates works of art and in human acts of kindness, mercy, or compassion.

And the Logos of human kindness, creativity, mercy, and compassion is what I find compelling in the non-Christian books I’ve been reading. More on that in the piece that follows this.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

On the border of the profane

By Amber Belldene

My favorite book about being a priest is Bill Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Bill says nearly every human being practices priesthood one time or another, when he or she stands in a liminal space between the transcendent and our mundane, gritty reality, and helps others pass between. Doctors, teachers, athletes, parents, artists—they are all priests. But, a person with a priestly vocation is called to do this liminal ministry all the time.

There are bizarre and awkward moments of ordained priesthood—when the pita bread that shows up at the altar is onion flavored, or when kids ask a shocking question at youth group. I find these moments some of the holiest, because they break open our routines and let the Spirit in. Thanks to Bill Countryman, on those occasions I like to picture myself straddling the fault line between heaven and earth, the holy and the profane.

Profane really just means “not holy,” so it’s funny that it has come to be associated with four-letter words. The unconsecrated parts of our lives aren’t obscene, but we tend to see them standing in contrast to the holy parts. Ordained people know this well, because of how people react when a person encounters something unexpected, if profoundly normal, about us.

As a priest by day and a romance novelist by night, I occasionally write four letter words, and scenes of people enacting them. It titillates some folks to hear of this avocation, but I didn’t follow my muse to titillate. I followed her because she wouldn’t leave me alone—compelling me to consume, analyze and eventually pen romance novels. Artists talk about muses, but we Christians know the true source of inspiration is Divine. And the ever-provocative Spirit kept leading me to the border between holy and profane and asking me to look at it very closely, and play hopscotch back and forth ¬¬¬across it.

As the English-speaking world learned with Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not the only woman interested in fiction that explores gender, explicit sexuality, and above all else, love. If you don’t know what I am talking about, please find out. (Let me be clear, I’m not recommending you read this book, simply that you know about it.) We can dismiss it as mommy porn, or we can ask ourselves what people are finding in a book like that and what it tells us about people’s longings (especially its huge audience of primarily young and middle aged mothers—ahem, that’s one of our mission fields). Both romantic and sexual love are Biblical metaphors for God’s love of humanity, and I wholeheartedly believe the popular passion for romance is about our human longing for God. People want love, and we Episcopalians have something radical to say about it.

As a church, we are struggling to speak about who we are and what we have to offer that other denominations don’t. I grew up in a charismatic Episcopal parish, and since then have attended every type on the spectrum. What we have in common, from our liturgies of blessing and marriage to our Eucharistic theology, is that we embrace incarnation and we reject the notion that our bodies and desires are bad. That’s not some slippery slope where we begin to think anything goes. It’s the Gospel. God became one of us, and God made us for love, of both the human and the divine varieties.

What does profane evangelism look like? For me, it involves speaking about the spiritual and liminal aspects of things like love, sex, and romance novels. Writing genre fiction is my guerrilla theological formation. I hope my novels are invitations to a spiritual and mystical worldview that may have something to do with God. But to many (or most) readers, they probably just seem like one more variation on the vampire tale.

If we’re right that people are hungry for God, and just don't know enough about our church to find us, perhaps we need to speak more about where and how God is in the profane parts of our lives. Because, the truth is, the liminal space between heaven and earth is just as likely to open up for us in the bedroom as it as around the altar, and we need to be less afraid to talk about that. Perhaps if we did, people might know they could bring their whole selves, longings and all, to the Episcopal Church, and find love.

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in December from Omnific Publishing.

Sacramental Theology 101: Baptism and Eucharist

by Derek Olsen

The Episcopal Church is a big-tent organization when it comes to theology. This is often a good thing as it allows a whole bunch of us who don’t necessarily agree on everything to come together, worship, and proclaim Jesus together in the world. On the other hand, when we do need to sit down and sort something out theologically, we’re sometimes at a loss for how to do it because of a fundamental lack of agreement about terms. This has been my experience around the “Communion without Baptism” debate. I come to the table from a Prayer Book Catholic perspective; certain words, terms, and ideas mean certain things to me and those with whom I live and worship. But when I talk with other Episcopalians, I sometimes get the sense that we’re talking past one another due to a lack of shared conceptual framework.

The “big tent” brings us together despite our differences; but can it help us understand each other? Actually—I think it can…

The prime mechanism of the “big tent” is the Book of Common Prayer—this is what we use together and what does give us a set of shared expressions (even if we don’t always entirely agree on what those expressions mean!). Likewise, it contains a variety of materials that I think can assist us when we try to talk God with one another.

Towards the back of the prayer book is a catechism (pp. 845-62). It’s a brief little thing, just under twenty pages, but it provides a basic outline of the faith that is fundamental enough that all Episcopalians—no matter their party affiliation—can get behind it.

Working solely from the catechism, I’d like to explore what the prayer book says that Episcopalians believe about the sacraments—particularly Baptism and Eucharist—and see if these can help us get a better sense of the issues surrounding a church policy that programmatically ignores Baptism when it comes to eucharistic distribution.

First, a quick word about the catechism: we must note what it is, and what it isn’t. The brief introduction on p. 844 clarifies this for us: “It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practices; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher…” It’s not intended to be comprehensive and there are important parts of Christian theology that it either glosses or skips over entirely. Nevertheless, being yoked to the creeds, it touches on essential points and gives us the best possible opportunity for broad buy-in.

We have to start at the very beginning and go from there:

Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.

Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices. (p. 845)

So—all humanity is created in the image of God. God loves us all. Period. Full stop. Furthermore, God wants us to “live in harmony with creation and with God.” God is attempting to reconcile us all to himself and, through that reconciliation, to the whole created order. God calls to us in a variety of ways and through a variety of means. Despite this, we find through the pages of the Old Testament that there is one particular method that God continually chooses to use in the task of reconciling humanity back to himself: the covenant.
Q. What is meant by a covenant with God?
A. A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith. (p. 846)

God calls us both individually and collectively, but in particular God likes to make covenants wherein a whole body of people respond in faith. There are a number of important covenants in Scripture: God’s covenant with Noah and all flesh, the covenant with Abraham and all his descendants, the covenant with Moses and all Israel, the covenant with David.

God’s ultimate act of covenant-making, however, was a covenant made in and through the blood of Jesus and his victory over the grave:

Q. How can we share in [Jesus’s] victory over sin, suffering, and death?
A. We share in his victory when we are baptized into the New Covenant and become living members of Christ.

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.

Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?
A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.

Q. What response did Christ require?
A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments. (pp. 850-1)

Many of the early covenant communities were something that you had to be born into; the New Covenant through Jesus is different. We enter into it through Baptism.

Now—stop for a second. Look back up the page. We said at the outset of our catechism crawl that God made us all in his image, that he loves us all, and that he is seeking our full reconciliation back to him. None of that has changed here. No one is saying that God only loves the baptized. What the catechism is saying is that Baptism ushers us into a particular covenant community. As such, it is a particular community who has chosen to acknowledge a certain kind of relationship with God that both claims a specific promise from God (“a new relationship”, “coming into the kingdom of God”, “life in all its fullness”)and that in response the community takes upon itself certain obligations (“believe in [Christ]”, “keep his commandments”). Baptism, therefore, is a deliberate and public change of our relationship with God by entering into a specific covenant community.

In case there’s any question we’ll pick up this one just to connect all the dots:

Q. What is the Church?
A. The Church is the community of the New Covenant. (p. 854)

No surprise there!

Since we’re getting pretty deep into Baptism, it’s time to focus on the sacraments themselves:

Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Q. What is grace?
A. Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.

Q. What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel?
A. The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. (p. 858)

Ok, we need to be quite careful here about exactly what is and isn’t said—this is where some major confusion can come in. First, it’s worth repeating this line again: “Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (The former Lutheran in me loves this line!) Second—and this is really important—note carefully this wording: “The sacraments are…given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The key words are “sure and certain means.” What we never ever say here or intend here is that the sacraments are the only or the sole means by which God dispenses grace. To say that is truly to put God in a little box! God is free to dispense his free, unearned and undeserved gifts of grace in any way that he sees fit. It’s not our job to oversee this. What it is our job to do, however, is to “believe in him and to keep his commandments.”

What is particular about sacramental grace is that it is a “sure and certain means of grace.” We don’t know all of the ways and means and methods through which God dispenses grace—however we do know for sure that the sacraments are channels that God has given to us as a covenant community to convey his own grace. We don’t own it, but it has been promised to us, it has been given to the Church—the covenant community—that we might be stewards of it according to God’s commands.

Q. What is Holy Baptism? A. Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.

. . .

Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. (p. 858)


Baptism’s grace brings us into a particular instantiation of God’s family, the Church, among other things. This family is not a generic group that includes all the created but is a specific grouping of the covenant community as made clear in the identification of the communion of the saints which shares with the previous point the terminology of God’s family:
Q. What is the communion of saints?
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. (p. 862)

What distinguishes this family is precisely the bond with Christ through “sacrament” (pre-eminently Baptism) as well as “prayer, and praise.”

The Eucharist, then, is described thusly:

Q. What is the Holy Eucharist? A. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament commanded by Christ for the continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again.

. . .

Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace given in the Eucharist?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith.

Q. What are the benefits which we receive in the Lord's Supper?
A. The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life. (pp. 859-60)


The language here is the language of building on something previous. The Eucharist is the gift to Christ’s people who are best understood not as “everybody” or “those whom Christ loves” (which is, again, “everybody”) but more specifically those “[united] with Christ in his death and resurrection, [born] into God's family the Church” (p. 858)—i.e., the baptized. Following on the language of union in Baptism is the statement that the Eucharist is a “strengthening of our union with Christ and one another” (p. 860); what was begun in Baptism is nourished and nurtured in the Eucharist. The language here concerning the Eucharist assumes Baptism in both the identification of the community and the benefits of the specific Eucharistic graces.

I would be remiss if I did not include one more section on the Eucharist:

Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people. (p. 860)

On one hand, I know that some will point out that “being baptized” is not included in this list; that’s true. However, the items on this list are not a set of ecclesial pre-conditions, but rather a set of spiritual dispositions. (Indeed, they were pretty much taken directly from the Exhortation to confession on p. 330 which itself was taken directly from earlier prayer books that explicitly required Confirmation before receiving the Eucharist.) On the other hand, while Baptism is not mentioned explicitly, we must ask ourselves if the casual un-churched attendee has had the time and opportunity for the examination and repentance directed here. Repentance for sin in particular is largely a spiritual discipline of the Church.

This having been said, I believe that we can construct from the catechism a set of basic principles around our use and practice of the sacraments that all Anglicans can agree on. I’ll number them for ease of reference:

1. God loves all who were created in his image—period.
2. God calls us to reconciliation with himself and with creation.
3. Historically, God’s preeminent channels for calling humanity to reconciliation are covenants through which covenant communities are created.
4. A covenant community is a deliberate body that has taken upon itself obligations as part of recognizing a particular relationship with God has initiated and that the community has both recognized and accepted.
5. The Church generally and the Episcopal Church specifically is a covenant community the entrance into which is Baptism.
6. Baptism is not a sign that God loves the baptized more than other people, nor is it a denial that God loves those who are not baptized. 7. Baptism is both a sign and an agent of a changed relationship with God wherein the baptized community recognizes a particular relationship with the Triune God through Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus and takes on the obligations that Jesus laid upon us (preeminently, to love God and love our neighbor and to keep his commandments—see p. 851)
8. Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ that itself points back to the Body of Christ entered into through Baptism.
9. There are sacramental graces conferred through Baptism and Eucharist that aid us in living deeper into the covenant relationship established with the Triune God through Baptism into Jesus and the on-going reception of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
10. Sacramental grace is not the only kind of grace there is, but is a sure and certain means of grace given to a particular covenant community for the strengthening of the bonds of that covenant.
11. Reception of the Eucharist occurs within the covenant community and within the context of the spiritual disciplines of the covenant community.
Now, as a self-professed Anglo-Catholic, there’s a whole lot more that I’d want to say and add in—but I won’t; I’m not trying to lay out an Anglo-Catholic theology of the Sacraments but a broadly Episcopal one which I can live with as can my Evangelical and Broad-Church friends.

That having been said, I can’t and won’t resist the temptation to throw out these few points:

A. The Church is the covenant community entered into through Baptism.
B. Apart from the covenant in Baptism, receiving the Eucharist just doesn’t make much sense! Why would anyone want to be strengthened in a very specific kind of relationship that they have not chosen to be a part of?
C. The call for Communion Without Baptism fundamentally confuses our understanding of both God’s love and God’s grace. People don’t need Baptism or the Eucharist to be loved by God—God already does that. Nor is the grace given in the Sacrament some kind of generic “divine good favor.” Rather, Sacramental grace is grace to better inhabit and more fully embody the covenant relationship created in Baptism.
D. I don’t control God’s grace distribution; he does that as he pleases. However the sure and certain grace in the sacrament is given to and embodied within a particular covenant community. We don’t possess it, per se, but we are stewards of it. We dispense it as we have received it—within the covenant community.
E. What we are called to do—one of those pesky commandments of Christ, in fact—is to invite people into the covenant community so that they can share in this particular relationship with God and be nurtured into reconciliation with God as we know and grasp the Triune God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).


Dr. Derek Olsen has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Homiletics at Emory University. Currently serving as Theologian-in-Residence at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, he leads quiet days and is a speaker to clergy groups. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics. A layman working in the IT field, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Recovering the Commons

By W. Christopher Evans

A key marker of Anglican christology is our emphasis on the social. Christ’s own Person contains within himself a social Body meant to witness to all the world of God’s abundant care for all. And that sociality extends into, influences, and interacts with general society where too the Word is at work though hidden, unacknowledged, unknown, and sometimes, even despised. A Word that at times works through general society to bring the Body to Christ again, eschewing naïve notions of a Church that has all the answers, being incapable of rebuke from “the world”.

Anglican christology therefore is greatly concerned for the common and the commons, a Body, in which for Thomas Cranmer’s time was intertwined in daily life. A commons in which those with much were turned to those with less, and all are called to question covetousness, greed, and exploitation. St. Paul’s injunctions in his first letter to the Church of Corinth come to mind.

As I read about the riots in England this week, I was reminded that riots in England and across the Isles are not a new phenomenon. Unjust and widening gaps of distribution of necessities and means for a good life have more than once stimulated uprisings. Faith played a part in these. The uprisings of the mid-16th century nearly unseated Henry VIII.

The factors are complex in the recent riots. An unarmed black man shot to death by police—a common occurrence in my own country where the latest situation of this sort in our area happened just up the road in San Francisco. High unemployment in the inner cities and among young people ages 18-25, also common here, especially among young men of color. A seriously widening gap between the extremely wealthy and everyone else, again, as much an American disease as British. The lowest social mobility in among developed nations. A failure to care for the dignity of all, including the dignity of good and meaningful work, again, here where jobs is the mantra without concern for liveable wage or decent treatment of the employed. A failure to respect one’s own dignity in the face of indignity and injustice, even to the point of harming others. Factors, I might add, that may serve the interests of the wealthy in the short-term, but could signal their own long-term troubles. It is frankly not in the purely self-interest of those who have much to have no concern for those who have little or nothing. Even Adam Smith understood that. As Church, we understand more. Covetousness, greed, and exploitation have no truck in Christ’s own Body, a Body that is meant to signal God’s hope for all.

Those who act out of covetousness, greed, and exploitation should not be surprised to find that those with little react in kind, even with covetousness, greed, and exploitation.

Cranmer, who upbraids nearly everyone and who for all of his failure to question the crown or its slaughter as response to the Western Rebellion, does attempt to recover the commons at a time when the up and coming were using enclosures to cut off the peasantry from access to the commons.

And I wonder, where is the voice of the Churches today? Where is a rebuke to those who would hoard wealth out of covetousness and greed and exploit those with less or nothing for more gain? These who cry socialism for funding a school or supporting the aged without means, but who receive all sorts of government handouts in the form of tax breaks, loopholes, and incentives for themselves? Where is a rebuke as strong as this from Canterbury or 815 rather than a justification of one’s status because of a seat in the Lords or a comfortable place at the heart of governmental power symbolized by a National Cathedral? From his quite socially conservative “A Sermon Concerning the Time of Rebellion”:

And surely nothing more hath caused great and puissant armies, realms, and empires to be overthrown, than hath done the insatiable covetousness of worldly goods. For hereby, as by a most strong poison, whole realms many times have come to ruin, which seemed else to have endured for ever: sundry commonwealths, which before were conserved in unity, have by incurable disorder been divided and separated into many parts….they also, which through covetousness of joining land to land, and inclosures to inclosures, have wronged and oppressed a great multitude of the king’s faithful subjects![1]

And although here I seem only to speak against these unlawful assemblers, yet I cannot allow those, but I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to purchase and join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to possess and inhabit the earth. For to such Esay the prophet threateneth everlasting woe and the curse of God, except they repent and amend their lives in time.[2]

But peradventure some will say: The gentlemen have done the commons great wrong, and things must needs be redressed. But is this the way, I pray you to reform that is amiss, to redress one injury with another? Is it the office of subjects, to take upon them the reformation of the commonwealth, without the commandment of common authority? To whom hath God given the ordering and reformation of realms? To kings or to subjects? Hearken, and fear the saying of Christ: “He that taketh the sword shall perish with the sword.” To take the sword, is to draw the sword without authority of the prince. For God in his scripture expressly forbiddeth all private revenging, and hath made this order in commonweals, that there should be kings and governors, to whom he hath willed all men to be subject and obedient. Those he hath ordained to be common revengers, correctors, and reformers of all common and private things that be amiss.[3]

All the holy scripture exhorteth to pity and compassion upon the poor, and to help them; but such poor as be oppressed with children or other necessary charges, or by fire, water, or other chance, come to poverty, or for age, sickness, or other causes, be not able to labour….They speak much against Achab, that took from Naboth his vineyard; but they follow not the example of Naboth, who would rather lose his vineyard, than he would make any commotion or tumult among the people.[4]

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

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Spirit of invention

By David Cook

What if the boat doesn't float?
Sinks straight to the bottom?
And I end up with just a wet butt
And everything wasted.

The whole town will laugh.

But at least we saw the blue sky
Felt the sun on our arms and faces
My nose peels when we do that
And things only seem wasted.

Never you mind. The next one will float.

What if the flying machine don't fly?
Busts itself up in the field?
Maybe that's how I broke my arm.
Mary Sue fussed over me,
Brought me water.

Nita Lou said "Let's take you to my granddad;
He'll know how to set it."
Cared for me, she did.

"Oh, well, the next one will fly.
I know you'll figure out how.
Maybe that part that goes around needs
To be fastened on stronger."

Yeah! I see that it does.
Well, at least we got to see the day,
And the hills all curving and sweeping
Like a fine lady waiting for her lover
Clothed in summer and all her best.

So you keep on living;
You keep from dying by the next thought
Trying: thinking the next idea up close to the roof
rafters.

Until the day corruption comes
To thrust between my lips
To bring to naught the labor of all my thoughts,
As I lay busy inventing the next life;
The one that will work where this one failed.

She weeps downstairs
But we tasted the strawberries
We tasted the honey and the coconut
We watched the moon rise

And so became a part of us forever
The thing that never dies.


David Cook, a lifelong Episcopalian living in Piedmont North Carolina, has retired from a career as a medical writer, and is now branching out into creative writing.

Elizabeth Johnson, Reliable Guide

By Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1992, the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Catholic theologian still respected and cherished in the theological academy for her book on the Trinity, God With Us, wrote an essay in the Jesuit magazine America titled “Catholic Women as Ministers and Theologians.” LaCugna noted that a critical mass of Catholic women had emerged with doctorates in theology, scripture, ethics, and related fields, and were now teaching in colleges, universities, and seminaries. While this change in the composition of the theological profession is not unique to the Catholic Church --or to Christianity-- LaCugna pointed out that of all professionally trained women theologians in the U.S., by far the majority were Roman Catholic. “Further,” LaCugna added, “the field known as feminist theology has largely been the project of Catholic women.”

LaCugna was under no illusion that the church as a whole had changed, despite the fact that a significant number of clergy and lay ministers, in this country at least, had been educated by theologians who were women. While women in the varied ministries of the church (both volunteer and professional) already far outnumbered men, church leadership remained clerical and less than collaborative, women were still barred from ordination, and feminist theology was treated as a fad.

Today the Catholic Theological Society of America, formerly a male, clerical, and white preserve, is still largely Euro-American, though it has recently seen its first Asian-American, African American, and Latino presidents. It is, however, no longer the preserve of either men or priests. These days, women and lay men make up a large proportion of the society; half of the members of its Board of Directors are women, and a woman president is no longer a novelty. Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former president of the society, is one of many Catholic women theologians who do not shy away from explicit feminist critique of church and theology. She is also, by most accounts, a moderate.

Professor Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God received renewed attention when a letter from the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dated March 24, 2011 and published on March 30 issued a 21-page statement criticizing the book for “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” which they said “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”

Being a Catholic theologian in trouble with authorities is nothing new. Many of the expert advisers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were formerly silenced scholars. They are now honored as fathers --they were all men-- of contemporary and theological studies, among them the French Dominican Yves Congar and his compatriot the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Recent history is dappled with Latin American (Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara), Asian (Tissa Balasuriya), European (Jacques Dupuis) and North American (Charles Curran, Peter Phan, Roger Haight) targets of criticism by the hierarchy, often at the level of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Indeed, the CTSA’s highest honor --an award which Professor Johnson received in 2004-- is named for the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who had his own troubles with the Vatican (he was silenced in 1954) but went on, a decade later, to draft the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty.

Analysts of the nuances of Catholic hierarchical statements may note that a condemnation by the USCCB does not carry the weight of an intervention by the Vatican. But, as the CTSA Board of Directors pointed out in a statement praising Professor Johnson’s work, the bishops did not follow their own rules, which they and a committee of Catholic theologians had set up during a painstaking process lasting nine years, from 1980 to 1989. As both the CTSA and Professor Johnson herself asked in her own brief response, how is it that Professor Johnson was never asked to meet with the bishops to discuss her book?

Professor Johnson began her professional life after entering the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in the late 1950s. Having first taught science at her order’s request, she has long been interested in science and ecology and their relationship to theology and spirituality. Her book Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, reflects this, as does the chapter on science, creation, and ecology in Quest.

A Trinitarian through and through, Professor Johnson has focused in particularly eloquent ways on the Holy Spirit, present in history and in daily life, in several of her works. She articulates a christology based on wisdom categories, both accompanying and inaugurating a recent trend.

In a 2008 interview with Tom Fox, former editor and publisher of the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter, Professor Johnson said “I just wanted a book out there, a simple book that people could pick up and read and munch on and feast on and have a banquet… in the theology of God.” Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of New York know the book since Bishop Mark Sisk gave them all a copy of it. It was his “innovative choice” for 2009, selected because it offered “a valuable reflection and overview of modern theological trends.”

Quest for the Living God is a creative venture, exploring ways in which Christians, as theologians of the pew and the street and as the people of God in their faith of many cultures and voices have been wrestling with, naming, and celebrating the presence of God in the world.

The book seeks to write “a new chapter in an ancient story,” as the first chapter indicates. Quest for the Living God begins with a warning: ancient cartographers marked the limit of known worlds by writing “Here be dragons" in empty space at the map's edge. “There is something frightening about moving into the unknown, which might harm or devour us,” Johnson writes. She invites her readers “to test where the limits of their own ideas about God might be” and to risk a journey through dragon territory to new places “already discovered to be life-giving and true by others in the church.”

Professor Johnson sets up three ground rules to equip readers for the journey: first, the recognition that God's reality is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery. God has drawn near in Jesus Christ “but even there the living God remains unutterable mystery…” Consequently, the second ground rule is that no expression of God can be taken literally. “We are always naming toward God, using good, true and beautiful fragments” of our worldly experiences to “point to the infinite mystery who dwells within and embraces the world but always exceeds our grasp.” Every word we speak about God is metaphorical or analogical, namely, that particular notion and more besides. From this, it follows, since no single name is ever sufficient, we need many names for God, each adding to the richness. These three precepts are rooted in the biblical warning against idols. They “free our imaginations from standard cultural models of the divine, the paltry heritage of modern theism.”

In chapters that follow, Professor Johnson explores God-talk emerging out of the crises of human history. How can we speak of God amid human suffering, especially the massive suffering and evil of the last century with its genocides, world wars, nuclear arms race, struggle to emerge from colonialism, and ecological destruction? How can we speak of God in a Christian way --a way advocating Christ’s uniqueness-- in a world of many religious and wisdom paths? Professor Johnson probes insights that God who suffers, who liberates, who acts “womanish” in “a symphony of symbols,” who breaks chains of racism and accompanies the poor and colonized and inspires them to celebrate fiesta, a God who is generous beyond our imagining in a world of plural religious experience and belonging, is also the Creator Spirit in an evolving world. She concludes in the Trinitarian God of love as beyond us, as with us in suffering, and as the pervading ways of the Spirit.

By all accounts (and our professional and personal experiences confirm this) Professor Johnson is a thorough scholar, a heartfelt Catholic, a determined and clear-spoken feminist, and a beloved teacher who is also a warm and witty public speaker. Joseph McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, where Beth Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology, spoke swiftly and clearly in her defense, as did the Board of the CTSA.

Quest for the Living God is a simple, accessible book with no footnotes. Its wisdom is to examine contemporary insights about God fearlessly and generously so as to detect broader and deeper religious truths. An instructor of Professor Good’s acquaintance who used it in an introductory theology course scheduled it for the end of the quarter, when participants are exploring the future of images of God and the sacred. She found the book highly accessible theologically to an array of students. The writing style presents evocative images and metaphors with which students, both young and older, can play, pray, and engage. The bibliography at the end of each chapter provides resources for further investigation. The professor concludes that the students appreciated this book because it touches on vital concerns that haunt them and about which they wonder: it made theology much more real to them.

Professor Johnson is a firm believer in the church’s mission of reconciliation. At a 2008 gathering of leaders of Catholic religious orders of women and men, many of whom feel anger at the institutional church, Professor Johnson, in a keynote address, invited the assembly to focus on the Holy Spirit’s power to build community in the church and to foster forgiveness. She also minced no words in naming the situation that angers many of her sisters and brothers: “We in this Catholic church continue to live with patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to second-class status governed by male-dominated structure, law, and ritual.”

Forgiveness, Professor Johnson said, “does not mean condoning harmful actions, or ceasing to criticize and resist them, but it does mean tapping into a wellspring of compassion that encompasses the hurt and sucks the venom out, so we can go forward making a positive contribution, without hatred.”

Why the condemnation of this particular book? Why now? Professor Johnson has written far heftier works for two full decades. Her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and in many ways was and is far more radical than Quest for the Living God. Professor Redmont remembers wondering at the time why the book did not get Professor Johnson in trouble and answering her own question in two ways: 1) The book, which places in dialogue feminist and classical Christian wisdom, was so exquisitely researched, so deeply rooted in scriptural and patristic study, so beautifully argued and written, that it was virtually impossible to shoot scholarly or doctrinal holes through it. 2) The bishops had not and would not read it, both because of its sophistication and because Professor Johnson was, after all, a woman. Most women theologians have more education in theology than most of the U.S. bishops.

Which brings us to the level of theological sophistication of the Catholic laity, including (for canonically they are lay persons) Catholic sisters. The bishops’ stated concern about Quest for the Living God is that as a book conceived to be popular, it is being widely read and used in undergraduate college courses and that it is leading the faithful astray. Have the faithful no intellectual capacity to discern or no capacity to be taught by their professors and clergy? As the French would say, Un peu de respect! (A little respect, please.) In a follow-up statement issued during Holy Week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, carefully delineates in doctrinal language the respective roles of bishops and theologians but inserts a sports metaphor. “In any sporting match, football, tennis, baseball, there are referees and umpires. The game can proceed with the supervision of a referee. In a tennis match, it is not the player who calls the ball ‘out of bounds’ but the referee. The player may object that it was not his or her intention to hit the ball out of bounds. He or she may even question whether the ball is out of bounds. But it is the referee who must make the call.”

Not surprisingly, sales of Quest for the Living God have, since the issuing of the original condemnation, shot up to the top of the Amazon.com sales list and in direct sales from Professor Johnson’s publisher, Continuum.

Even as we share the outrage of our Roman Catholic theological colleagues, we should not limit our ecumenical solidarity to complaints about Professor Johnson’s treatment by hierarchs who have tried --unsuccessfully so far-- to sully her good name and her credentials as a Catholic theologian. Indeed, we would do well to exercise our ecumenical muscles by learning from Professor Johnson’s theology.

As we celebrate the central mysteries of the Christian year and continue through the season of Resurrection, Professor Johnson’s critiques and constructive suggestions are well worth pondering, not only in Quest for the Living God but in all her works. Professor Johnson began her erudite, thoughtful, and faith-filled book She Who Is with thoughts that apply not only to Roman Catholics but equally to us as Episcopalians. “Inherited Christian speech about God,” she writes, “has developed within a framework that does not prize the unique and equal humanity of women, and bears the mark of this partiality and dominance.” How do we, in our theology and in our common prayer, speak of God and how can we struggle poetically and faithfully to speak of God rightly?

“To even the casual observer,” Professor Johnson writes, “it is obvious that the Christian community ordinarily speaks about God on the model of the ruling male human being. Both the images that are used and the concepts accompanying them reflect the experience of men in charge within a patriarchal system.” Professor Johnson continues: “The difficulty does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, for men too are made in the image of God and may suitably serve as finite beginning points for reference to God. Rather, the problem consists in the fact that these male terms are used exclusively, literally, and patriarchally.”

We strongly urge that Christians, catholic and reformed, read and discuss Professor Johnson’s books. Let her teach us. We have much to learn from her.

For further reading:

- Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990)

- She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992)
Tenth anniversary edition with new Preface, 2002.

- Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (1993)

- Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998)

- Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003)

- Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture (2004)

- Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007)

- Elizabeth A. Johnson is also editor of The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue, a book of proceedings of a 2002 symposium, and the author of numerous journal articles.

Deirdre Good is Professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary. Her latest book is Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Introduction with Bruce Chilton (Fortress Press 2010). Jane Carol Redmont teaches religious studies and theology at Guilford College and is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today (1992) and When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (1999, pbk 2008). She will be presenting a paper on an ecumenical panel inspired by Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets at the June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Embracing the metaphor of light

By George Clifford

A few months ago in Paris, I watched at sunset as the lights of the Eifel Tower were turned on. The Tower shimmered and sparkled, then the lights settled into a steady glow, a splash of light against a drab gray sky.

Light is a metaphor woven into the tapestry of Scripture:
• Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” a theme repeatedly voiced in John’s gospel.
• The first Epistle of John describes God as light and exhorts readers to walk in the light.
• God led Israel in the wilderness at night by the light of a pillar of fire.
• Job when depressed is in darkness; when God speaks, the light returns to Job’s personal world.
• The Psalmist implores God to let the light of God’s face on people.
• The Psalmist also describes God as the one who lights the way in the darkness.
• Additionally, the Psalmist portrays God as light and salvation.
• Isaiah spoke of the people on whom light has shined and that the light, the glory of the nations has come, a sentiment echoed in Matthew.
• Jesus describes his followers as the light of the world.
• The book of Acts, in several places, uses light to describe the life and mission of God’s people.
• The Pauline epistles use light as a metaphor for God, for the transformation that occurs when people encounter God, and for the mission of the Church.

Light, however, is a metaphor for God that has consistently taken a backseat to anthropomorphic (human images) metaphors. I wonder if perhaps the time has come to discard anthropomorphism in favor of light. Bishops John Shelby Spong and John A.T. Robinson have popularized the deconstruction of the antiquated, anachronistic, and anthropomorphic images of God. Those metaphors are well past their sell-by dates.

On the one hand, considerable psychological evidence exists that confirm philosophical suggestions that anthropomorphism represents human projections. The supernaturalism associated with anthropomorphism is increasingly problematic and rightly pilloried by atheists, especially following the helpful deconstruction of the death of God theologians.

On the other hand, no alternative metaphor for God has yet gained widespread traction or credibility, e.g., Tillich’s ground of being is remembered by few apart from academically trained theologians and clergy.

Perhaps light is an apt metaphor for God in the early twenty-first century.

Mike Higton, in his biography of Rowan Williams, Difficult Gospel, identifies light as the Archbishop’s dominant metaphor for God (p. 19). The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, instead of engaging in interminable internecine warfare, would do well to explore the metaphor of light as an image for God.

Light is not well-understood, which is certainly true of God. Light has properties of both waves and particles but does not fit into either category. Light has power. For example, human life is impossible without light and part from the light, people tend to become depressed, sometimes even to search for meaning. Light fills the darkness, which has no substance or being but is merely the absence of light. People tend to behave differently, better, in the light than in the darkness.

Light is a metaphor grounded in Scripture but not anthropomorphic, which opens the door to conversations with members of the other two great monotheisms, Islam and Judaism, about God’s nature. Light, as a metaphor for ultimate reality, may also represent a new beginning for conversations with other religious traditions.

Light is not personal in the sense of one human having a relationship with another human. Nevertheless, light is personal in that each person’s experience of light is uniquely his or her own, as is true for all perception. The same seems likely to be true for the light that is the life of the world. There is one light that is perceived in individually unique ways.

Unless the Church successfully articulates new metaphors for God that powerfully capture the imagination of moderns, offering transformative and life giving hope in a broken world, the Church itself is likely to be antiquated and anachronistic.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

The end of the world as we know it: collapsing paradigms

This is an excerpt from Paradoxy: Creating Christian community beyond us and them by the Rev. Ken Howard, rector of St. Nicholas' Church in Darnestown, Maryland.

By Ken Howard

I know. I know. The term paradigm sounds a little clichéd these days. In the world of business it seems like every other week somebody is promoting some new management technique as the newest paradigm in leadership. Yet while the term may have been overused (or even abused) of late, it is of great importance to understanding the turbulent times we face. If the word paradigm is a little hackneyed to you, just substitute world view, conceptual model, or some other equivalent term. Whatever you want to call it, if we want to understand how human beings learn and practice truth, we have to talk about paradigms. Because paradigms are the way we think and the way we interpret our perceptions of reality. It’s in our DNA.

The words truth and reality are commonly used as though they were interchangeable. But while they are integrally related, they really are two very different things. If we were to look at them in the form of a mathematical equation, the relationship might be expressed like this:

T = R + M
Truth Equals Reality plus Meaning
(what we seek when we seek what we call truth)

With apologies to agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files, it’s not the “truth” that is “out there” but “reality.” And while we are borrowing phrases from old T.V. shows, we might borrow a line from officer Joe Friday of Dragnet and say that reality is “just the facts,” without any meaning attributed to them.

We do like our reality filtered. Our minds seem “hard-wired” to develop paradigms. We are meaning-seeking creatures, determined to understand how and why things relate together the way they do, and we are driven to create conceptual systems based on our experience and observation of the world. It is this understanding of the hows and whys and relationships of reality that is what we mean by “truth.”

In fact, we so depend upon such understanding that we will create conceptual systems even in the face of minimal experience and a paucity of observations. For example, rather than accepting that major natural disasters are just expressions of random chaos at work in the world, we call them “acts of God.” Some find it easier to attribute poverty to character traits of the poor than to accept that their poverty and our prosperity might be as much a product of luck as of anything else. When a woman is sexually assaulted by a stranger, some are tempted to ask if she was wearing something revealing or acting in a seductive manner. In this way, creating paradigms gives us the illusion of predictability and control.

Paradigms help us negotiate our way through the world more effectively. As with walking, if we had to think about each step before we took it, our minds would be preoccupied with putting one foot in front of the other. We wouldn’t be able to chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. But once we “get” how walking works, we can move the activity out of our conscious minds and focus our conscious thinking processes on more important questions, such as “Where are we going?” and “Are we there yet?” Paradigms are the conceptual models we’ve developed to explain and predict how reality works. They provide a framework within which we can organize and integrate new experiences and observations.

The Problem with Paradigms: Confusing Truth with Reality
Paradigms seem to work so well for us, so much of the time, that we sometimes confuse our paradigms of reality with reality itself. Just like the glasses or contacts many of us wear, we forget that we have them on.

Similarly, when we lose sight of the provisional nature of our paradigms and begin to think of them as timeless and immutable, we can become reactive when faced with new experiences that don’t fit our old way of thinking. We may be tempted to deny them. We may be suspicious of anomalous observations that threaten the old way of seeing things, or of the motives of those who bring them to our attention.

But our denial cannot stop the accumulation of discordant observations and experiences that the old paradigm no longer explains. Sooner or later—usually later, human nature being what it is —the weight of the evidence becomes so great that the old paradigm collapses it. It is only then that a new paradigm can arise.

Physicist and historian of science Thomas Kuhn once explained the process of individual and collective denial that historically happens when major paradigms shift in fields of scientific knowledge. Some scientists dismissed discrepant data as measurement errors, even when they arose in their own experiments. Others attacked the competence or motivation of the researcher (when anomalies arose in other scientist’s experiments). Some appeared to “adjust” the data (mostly unconsciously) to fit the ruling paradigm. Others worked heroically to adapt the old paradigm to fit new data by introducing corollaries or constants. In some cases, researchers’ commitment to the old paradigm was so strong it actually rendered them incapable of perceiving the data that didn’t fit. These reactions were not limited to individual scientists. Resisters of change tended to be drawn to other like-minded scientists, eventually forming factions to oppose any consideration of abandoning the old, ruling paradigm of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Kuhn noted, other scientists would react in the opposite direction, intuitively formulating and often aggressively proposing alternative paradigms to account for those discrepancies. Often, several alternate paradigms would be formed. Some of these would be truly radical departures from the ruling paradigm; others merely an artful repackaging of the old way. Sometimes several of these alternative paradigms would be mutually exclusive of each other. The one thing they shared was that each would be championed with great hubris by their promoters. And as with the conservative scientists, factions of these progressive theorists tended to form to defend their positions.

But when the new paradigm finally emerged, it was neither exactly what the reactionaries feared nor what the radicals were advocating. Rather, the new paradigm usually contained some aspects of the heavily defended ruling paradigm, some aspects of the heavily promoted proposed ones, and—this is the interesting part—some aspects that neither side expected. Obviously, if scientists, who are in a field of understanding that is supposed to be the epitome of open-minded objectivity, respond to shifts in understanding reality with such a high level of reactive subjectivity, how can we expect the rest of us to be any less reactive and subjective in our responses?

The Rev. Ken Howard, author of em>Paradoxy: Creating Christian community beyond us and them, is rector of St. Nicholas' Church in Darnestown, Maryland.

Christ, culture and the struggle over same-sex relationships

By Derek Olsen

Recently the Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, a senior figure within the Russian Orthodox church gave an address at the Annual Nicean Club Dinner at Lambeth Palace in London. His remarks were focused on the concern he had for the future of the dialogue given liberalizing trends within the Anglican Communion. The Metropolitan repudiated the Episcopal Church for the ordination and consecration of women and for the consecration of Gene Robinson (not “Jim Robertson” as the Metropolitan stated…) and suggested that a similar fate was in store for the Church of England if it did not side-line its plans for the consecration of women as bishops. Instead, the Metropolitan framed the debated as a matter of capitulation to the culture:

We are also extremely concerned and disappointed by other processes that are manifesting themselves in churches of the Anglican Communion. Some Protestant and Anglican churches have repudiated basic Christian moral values by giving a public blessing to same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals as priests and bishops. Many Protestant and Anglican communities refuse to preach Christian moral values in secular society and prefer to adjust to worldly standards.

Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture. ....

What can these churches say to their faithful and to secular society? What kind of light do they shine upon the world (cf. Mt. 5:14)? What is their ‘salt’? I am afraid the words of Christ can be applied to them: If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men (Mt. 5:13).

In reading the Metropolitan’s words, I’m reminded of the classic work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. In this book, Niebuhr lays out five basic modes through which Christians construct the encounter between Christ—his shorthand for the faithful proclamation of the Gospel—and culture—the human environment, the backdrop in which we live and move. One mode is represented by nothing less than antagonism: Christ against Culture. This view demands that there be no accommodation with the culture; that the word of the Gospel is antithetical to human society and that it must be rejected and purified from the ground up. Significantly, Niebuhr illustrates this stance with the example of Leo Tolstoy, the only Eastern Orthodox Christian profiled in the book.

A second mode is complete capitulation: Christ of Culture. This view sees no discontinuity at all between the culture and the Gospel and sees Christ as an example of what is best in the culture and a model into which we all hope to grow. Again significantly, Niebuhr identifies this view with the Liberal Protestantism of Ritschl, Rauschenbusch, and others who, in Niebuhr’s day appealed to “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.”

The other three modes that Niebuhr lays out are more complex: Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transformer of Culture. The ordering of the book as well as its content leaves no doubt that Niebuhr’s favored solution is the last: Christ, the One who offers a transformational redemption to both humanity and the cultures they inhabit. Unsurprisingly, the Reformed theologian associates this approach with both Augustine and John Calvin—though he also includes our own F. D. Maurice firmly in this camp.
What I take away from Niehbuhr is the fundamental conviction that there is no culture—past, present or future—that either has, does, or will embody the Gospel teachings. Just as all humans sin and fall short of God’s loving hope for us, our cultures will as well. A true proclamation of the Gospel must always and inevitably include a condemnation for the ways that the Gospel is perverted in that culture. Just as surely it must identify and uplift where the Gospel is alive and at work within the culture and must encourage those movements which further the faith and habits of the Gospel.

Holding Niebuhr in mind, it’s easy to see the Metropolitan’s characterization of his position and the Anglican position as a clash between Niehbuhr’s first two modes: the metropolitan sees himself upholding a “Christ against Culture” perspective while accusing liberal Anglicans of a “Christ of Culture” perspective. Indeed, it’s easy to caricature the whole conflict between the warring Anglican parties along these two lines but—like all caricatures—it is a gross over-simplification and one that, more often than not, is false in both of its identifications. Furthermore, I see both sides perpetuating these mistaken identifications and digging into these positions, neither of which should be truly accurate.

With regard to liberalizing Anglicans—those who agree with the ordination of woman and those who will accept patterned homosexual clergy however conditionally—we need to take a hard look at ourselves, our theologies, and our motives. It is true that the prevailing Western culture has moved in a permissive direction over the past decades. Why are we in favor of these developments? Is it because it just seems right or because we have friends that we don’t want to disappoint—or because we truly believe that these innovations are demanded by the Gospel? All too often I see defenses of the liberal position that are based primarily in “rights” language or are grounded by warm personal anecdotes about friends, In advancing our arguments in this way, I fear that we do nothing more than confirm the caricature and, worse, ally ourselves with it. This does no service to our cause. I see the ordination and consecration of women and the ordination of people in committed exclusive life-long relationships blessed by the church—gay or straight—as mandates proceeding from the truth and morals of the Gospel. I sincerely hope that those who believe as I do understand it in the same way. It is only when we proceed from these bases that we can respond to the Metropolitan with a firm “no” and still look him—and ourselves—in the eye. We must ask ourselves whether we pass the Niehbuhr test—are we simply capitulating to the pressures of a permissive culture or do we understand the necessity for Christ to transform and rightly order our practices and relationships? Are there points where we clear identify the Gospel to be in conflict with our wider culture?

On the other hand, those who have taken for themselves a conservative label—whether they be Anglican, Russian Orthodox, or some other group—often fall short of the high ground they claim. While they may appear to be standing with Christ against Culture, all too often a deeper examination of their position reveals them to be nothing more than followers of a Christ of Culture as well. Assuredly, their culture is not the current contemporary Western culture, but sometimes the Gospel becomes nothing more than an excuse for the imposition of yet another human culture, especially one fashioned by nostalgia. Too often language about “traditional morals” is not an appeal to principles of virtue or the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church but to a by-gone all-too-human culture where women and gays stayed in their respective homes and closets.

The hard edge of the Gospel cuts against all human constructions of power and propriety. Sometimes its call to repentance, love, and virtue align with platforms either on the Left or on the Right. But neither platform ever captures the Gospel’s clarion. All platforms fall short. We inevitably fall short. But for all Anglicans, all Christians, who care about the on-going proclamation of the Gospel in a culture which needs to be redeemed by it, we must remain committed to holy conversation—with the Spirit and with one another, holy listening—to the Spirit and to our neighbors, and saturation in the Scriptures and Sacraments which are the trustworthy vehicles of the Gospel.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Tackling the charge of Gnosticism

By Richard E. Helmer

There is little more bracing for a priest than to be publicly accused of heresy – even if it is only the casual remarks of the angry and anonymous on the internet these days. So I have been pondering the charge of heresy – and, specifically, Gnosticism – leveled at me for an online reflection on chastity that was posted recently at Daily Episcopalian.

While leaving it to others to draw their own conclusions about whether the charges of Gnosticism should stick, I want to revisit this episode a bit more deeply, because in our prayer life, the daily office lectionary has been moving through the book of Proverbs in recent weeks. And in the heat of going back and forth over whether or not my reflection had me indulging in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, a good friend and mentor quoted to me this wise verse from our daily readings: “A rebuke goes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool.”

So, I had to wonder, was I being rightly rebuked by a handful of our more conservative sisters and brothers, or was I simply being unfairly excoriated, or – in the more likely mixed-up nature of our world – a bit of both? Understanding demanded more of me than simply rejecting my opponents’ arguments as emotional outburst. There was some substance behind their umbrage, and it was incumbent upon me to dig a little to find out what that substance was.
It never hurts to read what one’s self-styled theological opponents are reading. So I turned this week to some writing by N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and soon-to-retire Bishop of Durham. Wright continues to be widely read and respected by the more conservative and evangelical wings of the Church and the wider Anglican Communion. Yet he falls into the great tradition of Anglicanism: his writing is insightful, grounded in our Christian tension of reason, tradition, and scripture, and it is filled with his own distinctive blend of charm and wit. In the best Anglican fashion, he commands respect from all quarters, while not full agreement, to be sure.

In an address I stumbled upon this week – one N. T. Wright delivered at the last Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops – he speaks about Gnosticism and its contemporary manifestations in the West, and as I read his words, they struck home for me and started to make some sense of what I was hearing from my most vociferous critics.

It is easy to dismiss Gnosticism as an artifact of history. Wright notes that when, as a student, he was studying about the Gnostics, they seemed like a distinctly second-century phenomenon, strange relics of a diverse Christian antiquity only to be pondered these days by intellectuals sitting today in their academic towers. But in fact, Gnosticism has two key features that remain very much alive with us today. The first is what Wright calls “radical dualism” -- the idea that the spirit and body are at odds with one another, or in our individualistic and profit-driven society, that the we can exploit the physical world and our bodies for whatever ends we deem appropriate, and that includes the physical exploitation of others and of nature. Though N. T. Wright’s essay is two years old, we only have to look to the mess in the Gulf to see exactly what he means – unreflective Gnosticism of this sort at work in millions of gallons of sweet crude fouling beaches, poisoning the ecosystem beneath the waves and above, destroying livelihoods of our neighbors, and our withering national faith in engineering ingenuity and technology to save us.

A second feature, he says, is that Gnosticism is a religion not of redemption, but of self-discovery. Ours is an age indeed of continuing Gnostic self-help and “I’m OK, you’re OK” – that ubiquitous American cliché that one anonymous commentator, interestingly, saw rightly or wrongly in my writing. “There is even a danger,” N. T. Wright further says, “that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered.”

Viewed this way, Gnosticism is indeed the generic spiritualism that surrounds us in many forms – the notion that my spirituality is self-crafted and self-fulfilling, that “my own path” is sufficient for me. The spirituality of “self improvement” is a form of Gnosticism, when the reality -- at least as we Christians reckon it -- is that self is meaningless without others, without accountability, without rough-and-tumble relationship and the knocks of shared experience. We find community is the crucible of our redemption, of our renewal, not closing off the world and “finding ourselves.” I think Wright's on to a profound truth here, although I might respond differently than he does to this character of the contemporary, individualistic West.
Is his address, N. T. Wright prefers to contrast this contemporary, self-realizing Gnosticism with some traditionally evangelical language about God’s “rescuing” us, which, frankly, is a way of describing redemption I’m not all that keen on. There’s more to Christian redemption than merely being pulled out of a world burning with hellfire and brimstone, or of our being washed clean of the sticky crude like a rescued pelican in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, it’s also a bit Gnostic to talk of being “rescued” from this world, as it suggests another kind of dualism that is foreign to an incarnational faith. As we are fond of saying, we may not be “of the world,” but we are most certainly in it, just as Jesus was and the Spirit is. Our redemption is not about simply the salvation of individuated souls divorced from the world, but of the salvation our full being in the world. Put another way, our redemption must be about the world’s redemption, or our redemption is selfish, disconnected, and effectively meaningless.

"I'm OK, you're OK" is indeed that bland, Gnostic, hands-off tolerance our pluralistic society often professes. But we don't need simply to be "rescued," pulled from the stagnant, tepid waters of tolerance. Rather we need the Gospel to stir and heat them with Christ's life-giving radical engagement, forgiveness, acceptance, and healing of our full humanity. The Gospel, the good news of God in Christ, the message we take from the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is most certainly not "I'm OK, you're OK." But nor is it the ubiquitously old-fashioned American evangelical "I'm a sinner, and you're a sinner, too." Rather, we could say the Gospel message this way: “God is loving you and me together out of death into new community, into new life."


Our Christian faith embeds us in the relational challenges and hardships of community, it embraces and transforms the realities of pain and suffering, which are made divinely real and prescient in the cross and passion of Jesus Christ, and it gives tangible reality to our confession of what we have done and left undone; our call to set aside selfish ambition that exploits – to embrace instead the service that attends to the pressing needs in the world around us: in our neighbors, in our homes, in our selves, and, yes, very much in our bodies. This was a point I was trying to make about the practice of chastity.

In our recent Sunday lectionary readings, we heard the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son. This story about the great prophet begins not with some “out there” spiritualism, but with the very hollow-in-the-gut, physical hunger of a widow and her child preparing for their last meal, and that most poignant line – amongst my personal favorites in all of Scripture: "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Is that not the song of our most pressing needs? Of our deepest unfulfilled hungers? The song of a suffering Gulf coast, the unarticulated cry of the struggling wildlife, of our exploited planet? Is this not the refrain of the teeming hungry and the marginalized confronting their invisibility and facing extinction?
Elijah does not suggest she merely offer a prayer to God, or go off by herself and meditate to escape her suffering, but rather that she tangibly and painfully offer him a portion of her last meal, the very thing that sustains her and her son’s physical lives. It is in that offering that she discovers God’s power to sustain their life. And this kind of physical, tangible offering continues almost immediately in the story when she gives her dying, if not already lifeless son to Elijah. She is commanded to give him that which is most precious to her –more so than even her own life. The language of offering is so explicitly clear: Elijah takes her son from her bosom and carries him away. It is only when he brings her son back to her that he is alive . . . and so, therefore, is she.

For our spiritual ancestors and us, God’s acts of power are not worked out in the abstracted “spiritual”, but in the real and tangible, the physical. As Christians, we do not merely meditate on the Word, we engage with it: in our worship, we listen to story together, shoulder to shoulder, bringing our physical selves with all of our imperfections and edges into community. In study and in teaching our children, we wrestle with our story in speech and craft, making it part of our physical selves and preparing to pass it to a new generation. We work it “into our bones,” which is why our engagement with scripture is so critical, and why it must happen regularly not in the comfort of our armchairs, but in the edginess and discomfort of our communities. We splash in water in our baptism, we eat bread we call Jesus’ body and wine we call Christ’s blood – that is, God’s life incarnate amongst us. Ours is indeed an incarnational, embodied faith, not a Gnostic, abstracted spiritual one.

Our service to the wider world is about raising the dead, of responding to the pleas of widows preparing for their final meal. We consider our sisters and brothers on the front lines of the worst oil spill in American history: whether they are operating robots a mile beneath the sea or shoveling contaminated sand or scrubbing oil from the fragile feathers and skins of God’s creatures. How can we tangibly help them this day? Prayer is only the beginning.

And most of all, we are reminded that our Christian life with God is about offering ourselves, and not just as spiritual abstracts, but as physical, incarnate beings. The widow at Zarephath offers Elijah her final meal. And she gives him her son, that which is most precious to her. Gnosticism might have us offering mere acknowledgment or simple intellectual assent, or resting comfortably in our beautiful Anglican prayers. That’s not what God wants of us. That’s not what God needs to truly transform us. God needs everything we are – body, mind, and spirit – that kind of full self-offering that Jesus makes upon the cross, and that we re-member, that is, we enter into and then take into ourselves in each Eucharist.

Our embodied faith, after all, means more than words on a page (or online!); it means more than mere “spirituality” in the contemporary Western sense. Our faith involves our full selves in the Gospel work of transforming a world very much in need of healing, in need of resurrection, in need of God's Spirit that makes God's dream real. . . So that we and all creation may not only touch, but become again the fully embodied work of the divine.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

A faith not rooted in supernaturalism

By George Clifford

In March 2010, philosopher Daniel Dennett and social worker Linda LaScola published “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” first in Evolutionary Psychology and subsequently on the web. The article attracted considerable attention, including at the Episcopal Café. “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” reports on their study of five Protestant pastors who self-identify as having lost their religious faith. The one woman who was originally part of the study, an Episcopal priest, withdrew shortly before the study ended.

What, if anything, does “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” say to the Church?

Prima facie, the study says little to the Church. Five anecdotal stories provide interesting narratives but without any quantitative data about the prevalence of clergy who perceive themselves as hypocrites indicate nothing about the magnitude of this purported problem. Some percentage of every vocation become disillusioned with that vocation’s prevailing ethos or purpose while concurrently feeling vocationally trapped by extenuating factors (family, finances, etc). Furthermore, the Church in its early centuries wisely decided that an individual cleric’s belief did not determine the validity of the sacraments at which that cleric officiated. By extension, the same is true for sacramental acts such as preaching, teaching, and other forms of ministry.

Ministry, unlike most other callings, has no objective standards by which to determine efficacy or content. I, like the five interviewed clergy, have ministered to people who relied upon a literal interpretation of Christianity as a crutch that helped the person to cope with life. Many of these people, in my estimation, would have floundered, perhaps drowned, had I or another cleric attempted to introduce them to a less literal faith perspective. Judiciously employing multiple faith perspectives to help people live more abundantly coheres well with a theology that emphasizes respecting the dignity and worth of every person and that presupposes human language can only speak of ultimate reality through words as metaphor, symbol, and icon.

The study does highlight an important conceptual chasm that separates many twenty-first century Christians and adherents of other religions from some of the most vocal, high profile critics of religion. Contrary to the profoundly mistaken presumption of Dennett, LaScola, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al. – as well as the five clergy in their study – religious belief does not inherently entail supernaturalism. The guilt that some of the study’s participants feel from abandoning supernaturalism says more about study participants than about the possible viability of non-supernatural theology.

Anglican Bishops John A.T. Robinson and John Shelby Spong have both worked to deconstruct theological concepts of a supernatural God while adamantly affirming their continuing belief in God. The ancient tradition of the via negativa (God lies beyond all words; words at best function as metaphors, symbols, or icons and at worst construct an idol) certainly does not necessitate supernaturalism. More recently, process theologians, Tillichians, and others such as Episcopal priest John Keenan (The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology) have sought to speak of God in non-supernatural language. These projects have admittedly struggled to gain widespread traction, failing to articulate icons, symbols, or metaphors that capture modern imaginations. Theological reconstruction is obviously a far more difficult task than is theological deconstruction. However, critics apparently prefer to pillory the supernatural straw man rather than to engage non-supernatural theologians in meaningful dialogue about premises, possibilities, etc.

Finally, Dennett and LaScola’s study illuminates one often-ignored cause of the current Anglican Communion conflicts over sexual ethics. Admittedly, those sadly vicious disputes have several roots. One important root is the issue of authority: will the Anglican Communion continue as a voluntary association of Churches in communion with Canterbury or will the Anglican Communion adopt a more authoritarian, tightly bonded organizational structure consonant with Archbishop Williams’ recent actions? Another important root of the conflict is the opportunity that non-Anglican conservatives saw to use this controversy to advance their own anti-GLBT agenda. Contributions from these conservatives have substantially funded cross-border incursions, disaffections from the Episcopal Church (TEC), and the media attention the resultant conflict has received.

But another, less visible yet significant cause of the deep conflict within the Anglican Communion is the divergent Christian worldviews represented among Anglicans. In a sweeping generalization with numerous exceptions, the many Anglicans who subscribe to a supernatural theology tend to believe that scripture communicates propositional truths that include definitive teachings about human sexuality. This position is more common among people who do not engage in critical study of the Bible but by no means unique to them. Conversely, the many Anglicans who reject supernatural theology, explicitly (they have given the subject conscious thought) or implicitly (they use the language of supernaturalism but hold a worldview that de facto excludes supernaturalism), tend to disbelieve that scripture communicates propositional truths about human sexuality.

Theological deconstructions of supernaturalism have usually emphasized clashes between science and supernaturalism. Fewer deconstructions recognize globalization’s important consequences for diminishing the attractiveness of supernaturalism. Globalization often increases a person’s awareness of: our common humanity that transcends cultural differences; the theological, ethical, functional, and social commonalities Christianity shares with other world religions; and the exclusive truth claims found in the scriptures of various religions. Analogous to the way in which science pushes theology to abandon comfortable, time-honored images of a supernatural God for a deeper, less easily articulated but more immediate awareness of the holy, globalization pushes theology to broaden its perspective, freeing itself from culturally situated language. In a development unimaginable in prior centuries, some contemporary Christians (clergy and laity) find ideas or praxis from another religion sufficiently insightful or helpful that the person incorporates the material into her or his Christian theology and praxis. Some, but not all, of these Christians have difficulty with that integration, adopting positions that seem oddly incongruous or incompatible. Others, like Episcopal priest John Keenan, manage the integration with a fidelity to their Christian identity.

Following the American Revolution, colonial Anglicans distanced themselves from the Church of England. This was an existential necessity: continued allegiance to the British crown would have effectively sounded Anglican’s death knell in the nascent United States; continuing as Anglicans required the post-colonial Church to obtain bishops who could administer confirmation and ordain clergy.

TEC’s current struggle within the Anglican Communion is also existential. Denying full inclusion to all people, GLBT as well as heterosexual, puts TEC on the right side of history, something each passing year makes more obvious. Insisting that all faithful Christians tenaciously cling to an anachronistic supernaturalism with its attendant claim to discern propositional truths about sexuality and sexual ethics in scripture will surely sound Anglican Christianity’s death knell. Similarly, moderns with scientific educations or global perspectives increasingly find themselves choosing between the atheism of Dennett and company, agnosticism, or trying to chart new theological understandings in light of the deconstructions of Robinson and company. Not surprisingly, these struggles occasion much conflict in the Church.

Anglican’s traditional “big tent” genius allowed people to pray together in spite of sharply opposing views. Preserving “big tent” Anglicanism represents a better future for the Anglican Communion than does adopting a more authoritarian structure. Trying to enforce homogeneity stifles creativity, unhelpfully masks dissent as assent, fosters schism, and eventually leads to institutional ill health, as glaringly evidenced in the Roman Catholic Church’s history and problems. TEC does well to stay its present course faithfully of practicing a radical hospitality that welcomes everyone and of commending that practice to the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Of the Trinity

By Bill Carroll

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears.

We have just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and in the Gospel, we encountered some of the basic grammar of our faith. That day, of all days, it was important that we not get lost in abstractions, as easy as that would be. Doctrine is important, because it preserves the Church from certain fundamental distortions of the Gospel. But the purpose of doctrine is to illuminate the Gospel story—and not the other way around.

And so, let me note where the day's Gospel passage occurs in the overall narrative. It is taken from the lengthy farewell discourse in John. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. He is preparing his disciples for his death and return to the bosom of the Father. He is preparing them for his reconciling work, by which he will make his enemies into friends, but which will come at first as a traumatic loss. There is no gateway back to God, except the narrow door of the cross—that is, the self-emptying and dispossessive love of Christ.

And he is promising them, in spite of what they are about to experience, that he will never leave them orphaned or alone. He will send them another Comforter, or Advocate. This Spirit, the Holy Spirit, will lead them into all Truth. Indeed, in John, the Spirit is the One through whom Jesus continues to dwell within us and among us, keeping his promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

The Spirit's ministry is described in nearly the same terms as that of Jesus himself, who is sent by the Father to declare the things he has seen and heard. Like Jesus, the Spirit is a faithful witness, who speaks only what belongs to Another. As Jesus puts it, he will take what is mine and declare it to you. Moreover, Jesus has been given everything (and only those things) that belong to the Father. As he notes in the passage, All that the Father has is mine.

Now, on one level, this points us to the fundamental achievement of the First Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, held in 325 and 381 respectively. Jesus is "of one Being" with the Father. He is homoousios or consubstantial with the Father. Against the Arian heresy, the Church maintains that Jesus is not an angel or God's highest creature--not even a demigod--but God's only Son our Lord, eternally begotten of the Father, different in person but not in substance with the One who sent him.

The passage also points us also to the fundamental equality of the Spirit, who is the Lord and Giver of Life. The Spirit is worshiped and glorified equally with the Father and the Son. The Spirit is no mere creature—but is instead God's own Spirit, the very love of God poured into our hearts to make us holy—to lead us into Truth. According to John, Jesus himself is that Truth. And it is for this reason that the Spirit is said to take the things that belong to Jesus and declare them to us. The Spirit is the One by Whom the precepts and promises of Christ are conveyed to us. But more fundamentally, the Spirit is the One by Whom we are united in faith and love with the Lord Jesus, so that in him, we might give glory to the Father.

Again, it all comes back to a story. The story that is told in many conflicting and sometimes contradictory voices in the Scriptures, summed up in the Creeds, and retold at each and every celebration of the Eucharist. Here it is in outline:

For all eternity, God is love. God is pure, abundant, self-giving love, perfectly shared among the Three. Out of goodness and love, God made the world and everything in it. God made it good, and God made us human beings very good, in and through the Word. And when we sinned and fell short of God's good and loving purpose, when we lost our freedom and sold ourselves to other masters, out of love, God sought us out and set us free. Again and again, God sent prophets to call us back to love. And finally, in these last days, God sent God's very own Son, Jesus the Christ, to live and die as one of us--to rise again as one of us—to reconcile us to the one God and Father of all. While await his return in glory, the Lord Jesus has sent his very own Spirit to live within us, to strengthen us to continue his work in the world, to purify us and form us ever more deeply into his likeness, a kind of first fruits of God’s Kingdom.

The Church remains highly imperfect. If you don’t believe it, look around you. Or better, look not to others, but engage in the more difficult work of self-examination. Look to the unfinished story of your own life and to the frustrations of life in human society. In the light of the Spirit, by whom God searches us and knows us, we come to know our open depravity and secret shames. We see the truth of our broken promises, our pride, our lust, our greed. We see our rapacious appetite disfigure earth and sky and sea. We see our rivalry and violence—our fear and hatred of our fellow human beings—our participation in the long, dark legacy of Cain.

Indeed, it can be painful work for us as the Spirit guides and stretches us—as the Spirit forms us into vessels fit for God’s abundant goodness. So far have we strayed from our created goodness. We do not easily withstand the gift of mercy—so rare it is in the world. We are threatened by the purity of God’s truth. And yet, in the Spirit, we share in Christ’s own life—in his very own relationship with the Father. In the Spirit, we share in Christ’s own love—for the neighbor, the sinner, the stranger, and the enemy—even for ourselves. And we are made joint heirs with him of all God’s promises, which exceed all we could ever ask or imagine.

In the Word and the Spirit, God holds nothing back. These are no creatures, but God’s own hands, present and active in the world. The Spirit takes the things that belong to Christ and gives them to us, just as Jesus shares with us the mystery of his Father’s ineffable mercy and love. Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God. As much as we can—often more than we can—we receive from his hands as a gift—until at last his Spirit leads us into ALL TRUTH.

In that day, the living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—will be all in all.

And the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Jesus Christ is Lord of The Episcopal Church and of All Creation

By W. Christopher Evans

An on-line mentor of mine and of many, Dr. Louie Crew, was recently asked a rather odd question, “Who is the temporal head of The Episcopal Church?” The question implies still again a swoop-in understanding of Jesus Christ’s presence, as if Jesus Christ somehow goes absent (rather than often hidden) in the interim or interregnum outside of word proclaimed from the pulpit or sacrament presented at the altar, something like John Mason Neal’s infamous first stanza:

Christ is gone up; yet ere he passed
from earth, in heaven to reign,
he formed one holy Church to last
till he should come again.

On the contrary, by word proclaimed, as bread and wine, and I would add, in psalms sung, we again encounter the terrifying, liberating news that everywhere and always Jesus Christ is present, presence, and Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s own promises, Jesus does not ever leave us behind—ever. Our own Eucharistic prayers remind us of this again and again:

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again” (BCP, 363).

All hinges on that little word “is” as Zwingli’s and Luther’s own battles remind us. Christ is risen! Not in the past. Not merely in the future. By sheer Self-gift, here and now, Christ is risen, taking into God’s own life once-for-all by means of himself flesh, matter, creation. Is risen declares, Jesus overcomes, reigns, and makes himself anywhere and everywhere to be present and explicitly available in psalms, by word, and as bread and wine—and among sisters and brothers called to praise and proclaim his Name. But nowhere is creation not his own. This is, after all, the creation which he himself speaks, no sings, into existence.

Our “peculiar realized eschatology” (F. D. Maurice) or “inaugurated eschatology” (Arthur Just) or eucharistic eschatology (myself) stands in radical contrast to and rejection of the popular End Times christologies of Left Behind and similar series. God in Christ never goes absent to swoop in at the End and clean up the mass by seeming hatred of that which he has made. Rather, Christ is our beginning, our principle, our end who never lets us go—this is the heart of the Reformers’ rebuke in justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Nowhere is this care more obvious than in the lines from Wisdom 11:24 in our Ash Wednesday Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent” (BCP, 217).

That much of American Protestantism has devolved into a degenerate Zwinglianism should not let us absent this radical reminder of Christ’s lordership here and now and always and everywhere. “Christ will come again” is not merely future promise of Consummation, but present promise fulfilled in psalms sung, by word proclaimed, and as bread and wine—and among we who are his own Body sent forth to live it. And just the same, by a creation always being sung into existence. Nowhere can we not turn and not be surprised to find declaration of our Lord Christ’s reign and presence. And though our Lord Christ remains often hidden, we should not think him not speaking or absent. See the Sparrow. The Ant. The Raven. The foreigner. The widow. The orphan.

So, when I hear this question then, I want to respond, “How we try to wriggle our way out of being subject to and disciples of Christ.” For my answer to this question is this: The spiritual and temporal Head of The Episcopal Church is our Lord Jesus Christ.

F. D. Maurice made much of Christ’s headship. Christ’s headship not only implies oversight and rule, but constitutive and creative power. This is the Lord who speaks us into existence and redeems that same existence in each and every moment. This is the Lord of whom we are members bodily by Holy Baptism—and, Maurice would remind us, God’s own from the moment of our creation, despite all appearances to the contrary. Baptism into Christ in Maurice’s, as with his mentor Luther’s, christology is not a one-time event, but our true and only and ever-present reality, stance, hope, and only ontology always and everywhere. We are God’s own to whom God in Christ has come once-for-all. Having received ourselves anew from God by death into and life in our Lord Christ through life-giving waters, live it. Live as the children of God we are created to be “from the beginning” and when “God began to create.” No, in all things, creation, redemption, life, death, Jesus Christ is Lord.

While a division of spiritual and temporal may be meant to properly divide Creator and creature, by doing so in this fashion, it undermines the Resurrection and comes close to denial of the Ascension. By taking flesh into the heavenlies, God in Christ will never let his creation go, but indeed, takes creation into Godsself for once and always:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen (BCP, 226).

We should expect to encounter a Who, Lancelot Andrewes tells us, our Lord Christ, wherever two or three are called together in psalms sung, by word proclaimed, and as bread and wine. And not only there, but in all of creation, for it is this same Lord Word who speaks all, this same Lord Wisdom who “orderest all things mightily” for us though the Evil One gnashes and we follow suit. Both of time and eternity, Jesus Christ is Lord!

What a spiritual and temporal division of Christ’s lordship also suggests is somehow matters of flesh and blood are of lesser or no concern to God than those matters spiritual. The Incarnation and the Crucifixion tell us contrary-wise. Matters of flesh and blood precisely reveal the Spirit or not. Division of body and soul and spirit in this manner is unbiblical. We are persons bodily. The Resurrection of our Lord reminds us that we will not be so, that is, persons without a body, changed though we may be. Flesh matters. Matter matters. God pitches God’s tent among us in our Lord Christ.

Both in matters spiritual and matters temporal then, indeed in all things, Jesus Christ is Head of the Church. We Episcopalians, as Bishop John Skinner of Scotland preaches to us at our inception and constitution as a Church, will be non-established:

Hence it is evident that the church as constituted by Christ, must be allowed to be independent on the state, or these apostles must be considered as guilty of disobedience and sedition. And the succeeding bishops, for the first three hundred years after Christ, must lie under the same charge: for they held religious assemblies, governed their clergy and people, and executed all other parts of their sacred function, not only without leave from the state, but very often in direct opposition to it. (John Skinner, “The Nature and Extent of the Apostolical Commission, A Sermon Preached at the Consecration of the Right Reverend Dr Samuel Seabury, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, by a Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Scotland.).

Our Deputies in General Convention, our bishops, all are, but they never stand in Christ’s stead. We have no vicar of Christ. No one stands in Christ’s place. Rather as our priests present to us, each of us as creatures of God’s singing, as members of Christ’s own Body redeemed point to and profess and proclaim and bless our one Lord in all things. Any power, authority, governance we have rests in him or stands not at all. And not just us, for our Lord Christ is not only Head of the Church, he is Head of All Creation. William Stringfellow reminds us again and again that nowhere is the Word not speaking and present and active in working to bring all into conformity by redemption to God’s will. This world and the world are God’s in Christ Jesus despite all appearances, despite our denials, despite our not knowing, despite our sins, despite our open rebellion. This is what we, Christ’s own Body are called to profess and proclaim and most importantly, hymn: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” By those four words as creed, empires have been brought to their knees and oppressions made to cease, by them we laud Christ as head and only and blessed: Holy, holy, holy.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

What God is This? (Re)Connecting Crucifixion, Incarnation, and Creation

Daily Episcopalian will return with a new essay on April 5.

By W. Christopher Evans

Christ is reigning from the tree: Come, let us adore him.

This antiphon for the latter half of Lent from A Monastic Breviary has accompanied me this Lent. Like in so many of the passages from Isaiah, Paul, and John for this season, God turns everything downside up. Glory sweats and bleeds.

Passion piety is out of season in our churches. Our whole liturgical reform has been and continues to be preoccupied with the Resurrection, Ascension, and now, Creation. With celebration rather than contrition. Yet, for centuries, an Incarnation and Crucifixion piety shaped Anglican Christians by the Leonine Collect, by the Cranmerian Canon. The all of our worthlessness was cast on Christ, the all of his worth given to us. This receiving of our all by trust in him in our creation and redemption was everything. Our sharing in God’s own life was predicated on God’s having shared in our own, as in this reworked version of Leo’s Collect I cobbled together for Lent:

Almighty God, you have made yourself known in your Son, Jesus, who was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw all the world to himself: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity; Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In working to correct an imbalance, it seems that now we want little to do with a pained and suffering God; with a God who nurses, shits, and bleeds; with a God who identifies with flesh, blood, and bone definitively. The Nativity, the Incarnation, is reduced to sweet manger scenes and gifts of sweets. The cross is an after thought to the joys of Easter. We want nothing of the Creator who, in J.S. Bach’s words for St. John’s Passion, dies.

But without this bodiliness, this fleshliness, the Resurrection becomes a ghostly thing. I remember recently a conversation in which was said, “The Resurrection isn’t about the after life, it’s about the living of this life free from the power of death.” Well, yes, and…

When I shared these words with my partner, he replied, “That’s not enough for me. It’s very liberal Protestant, very Marcus Borg.” What is suggested by such a spiritualizing view is that our selves wholly are not finally of ultimate concern in God’s eyes. Freed from death to live life in the power of the Resurrection, we have nothing to hold onto besides becoming flower food.

Ironically, while holding fast to the flesh of this life, such a view seems to ignore the immensity of a God who identifies so fully with flesh as to raise flesh up, taking flesh into the divine life and promising never to let us go. What of the God who promises never to let us go by “indissoluable bond” in Holy Baptism? What of the God who so thoroughly identifies with our flesh that we are promised not only life abundant, but life eternal? Resurrection, that which should affirm finally and definitively that matter matters to God once for always becomes itself distorted where passion piety withers.

It is this fleshly God, Jesus Christ, who goes all the way for us that captures my heart and imagination, that makes utterly awesome the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Communion of Saints, the Creation, the Holy Communion.

Incarnation is more than a sweet manger scene. It is God’s utter giving of self for the life of the world. As has become my custom, at the Office Hymn, I chant the Johannine Prologue in Lent, the Philippians Christ Hymn in Christmas. The placing of cross at crib, and crib at cross draws the two seasons together in a way that resists our modern want to dissect the days and seasons of the Church Year into discrete unrelated units rather than take us through the full Christological sweep, with foretastes of what is to come in each. Something I noticed recently when seeing that one of the Psalm antiphons for The Baptism of Our Lord is: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God; it is he who takes away the sin of the world.” In that time after the Epiphany, when all is light and glory, babe and joy, already eyes are cast to Lent, to Good Friday.

Just so, prefigured in the Herodian persecution and the vulnerability of his birth, on the cross Jesus completes his embrace of the human condition and of fleshly existence all the ways down, for all sorts and conditions, once for all in every time and place. Not in the bright lights of Resurrection, but in the blinding midday sun at the Crucifixion, to borrow from Robert Smith’s last work: Wounded Lord: Reading John Through The Eyes of Thomas. This midday tradition of Crucifixion and Incarnation emphases is not by accident: Angelus and Agnus go hand in hand.

Jesus Christ reveals Who God is for us in his writhing body and words of intercession: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Unto death, death on a cross,” this God will not let us go even in our betrayal, cruelty, and evil. Precisely here, he enters into the heart of death and alienation, identifying himself with us to the end, into the gnaw and gnash of oblivion:

What God is This?

What God is this, who, bleeds and sweats,
as Mary mild is weeping?
Whom soldiers cheat by games of chance,
while passers curse in greeting?

Why hangs he high upon a tree,
court dog and eagle keeping?
Come far, come near: all nations hear:
the Word for us is pleading.

So see him broken, bruised, and bare,
on bended knee, adore him;
the King of kings creation frees,
let all the world draw near him.

This, this is Christ the King,
whom soldiers guard and robbers ring,
haste, haste, to him behold,
the man, the Son of Glory.

W. Christopher Evans©2010

Christ faces into hell. And in his total self-giving even to death and alienation, he, as if from the inside, so to speak, overcomes our separation, once-for-all.

Being an incarnational and cruciform tradition, ours is a seeing and hearing tradition, a tradition of both presentation and proclamation. Both reveal Who is this God? In the words of Pilate, “Behold, the man” or in the St. Paul, “proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.” This presentation and proclamation is pro me, pro nobis, pro mundi; for you and for me, for us, and for the whole world:

Behind our apartment complex sits a small city park with a large pond home to many creatures. The kingdoms are many. A parliament of Ducks, Geese, Swans, Crows, Ravens, Songbirds, and Seagulls. A congress of garter and gopher Snakes, Lizards, and Turtles. A council of Salamanders and Frogs. A chamber of stray Cats. We walk there often with our Dog.


Recently, meandering up the asphalt path toward home, several rocks stood about as if the remains of a fallen temple. The carcass of a small black and yellow striped garter Snake lay among the ruins. The Snake’s body was torn in pieces and ripped open long-ways along one section. Another section, belly skyward was tinged a bright blue as if some toxic substance had been applied. Her or his head was upturned and scrunched up, as if in agony. Surveying the scene in sorrow, in sudden horror, it dawned on us: Humans unknown had tortured to death this small Snake.

We paused for a moment, the realization unbearable. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my partner, so sensitive to such possibilities, could look no more, wanting to get away quickly. But I stared, as if counting every rib and analyzing what gall had been given.

I made the Sign of the Cross, hummed the antiphon to myself, offered a sentence of repentance for human cruelty and evil toward fellow creatures, and then adapted a version of my Roadkill Collect:

O God of our salvation, your Son, Jesus, was betrayed by his friends and tortured to death on a tree; and lifted up very high, he embraced all flesh in his outstretched arms: Receive now into your undying care, this, your garter Snake, betrayed by human cruelty and tortured to death by merciless stoning, that enjoying you forever according to her or his estate, she or he may behold your everlasting glory, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

At the manger, the Animals, lowing, bleating, braying, praise redemption’s drawing nigh. And by the cross, the Animals, crowing, creeping, shaking, rejoice in creation’s rise. In Christ, God offers himself for the life of the whole world, and all flesh shall see him together:

Christ is reigning from the tree: Come, let us adore him.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

Doing the theology: Yes, we have

By Michael Russell

Bishop Pierre Whalon has recently suggested that one of the ongoing issues in the current troubles is that TEC put the cart in from of the mule by acting with respect to the confirmation and consecration of +Gene Robinson before we had fully formed or voted for a theological rational for such actions. Sadly we cannot change the past, but we might at this time affirm that in the deliberations of GC and the church over the past thirty years we have done that work and then ratified on the floors of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.

Since we cannot undo the past I have to wonder about the utility of generating such an “official” theological position now. If we were to spend time doing some "careful" theological study and then adopt it, for whom are we doing it? Not for ourselves because we've already committed to a path. Not for those who are clearly and I think permanently opposed to full inclusion, they will never be convinced. Perhaps it would be useful for people who can be swayed one way or the other, and for that reason it may be worth doing.

With the cat well out of the bag, however, I suggest we just distill all that has brought us to this moment into a series of affirmations or principles and enter any future conversations from there. Those might include:

1) Scripture has no definitive teaching on homosexuality as it is practiced by couples in the Christian family. Even Peter found parts of Paul's letters hard to understand! The use of scripture to stir up hysteria, to create scapegoats or to justify violence against any group of people is anathema.

2) While there are commands in parts of scripture, the overall purpose of scripture is not to be a legal code or a guide to all things simply. Those who seek to make a new law from the Gospel have failed to understand it at all.

3) The traditional understanding of marriage was as a political, economic, or procreative union, sometimes unions, rarely consensually or freely entered into by women and often not by men either.

4) All people are children of God regardless of their genetic construction and the Church is free to place in leadership anyone who loves Jesus and has gifts for ministry.

5) Reason and Nature are sources of divine revelation (do read Hooker to understand this one) because God made it all and it all teaches us about God. While sin hampers, it does not destroy human capacity to learn new things that our ancestors could not have known. These things are as much a reflection of God's will in the universe today as such things were for our ancestors.

6) Only one commandment survives with any authority, "Love one another as I have loved you." The rest is hash.

There may be others we might say, or some group might want to flesh them out. But frankly I think GC has struggled hard over the decades to parse all this out. It has listened to all including strongly dissenting voices and then made decisions based on its considered judgment. That is doing theology too.

The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls', Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker's Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of
Ecclesiastical Polity, and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.

Not protected, but encouraged

By Stephen T. Lane

Like many people, I’ve spent much of the last two weeks reflecting on my belief in God and on the nature of Christian hope. The seemingly inexhaustible horror of a magnitude 7 earthquake near Port au Prince, Haiti, has left something like 3,000,000 Haitians refugees in their own land. 1.5 million are homeless. All need water and food and medical care. Because most goods and services reach Haiti through Port au Prince, the whole country is at risk. As people flee the city, they take their needs, their hunger, to regions that have few resources to help. Television dissects the disaster in excruciating detail.

Observers have complained about the slowness of relief efforts, the lack of leadership and coordination, but the truth is that this is the greatest disaster to occur in one place at one time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the world does the very best it can, it is an open question if the world can feed, clothe and house 1.5 to 3 million people on a daily basis for months to come. In the face of such a disaster, words fail. The only appropriate response is a deep sense of grief: grief for the dead, grief for the injured, grief for the loss and devastation, grief for those we know, grief for those known only to God. And it is no surprise if we wonder about the love of God.

What we’re talking about is called, in theology, the problem of theodicy. Simply stated, in the face of disaster, God is either incapable of acting and is therefore impotent, or God chooses not to act and is therefore indifferent to human suffering. An all-powerful and loving God would not permit such a disaster. As I read the press and blogs, pundits everywhere are pointing either to irrelevance of faith in God or looking for some way to explain why God might want to punish the Haitians.

But such an understanding of belief, in particular, of Christian belief, rests on the theological speculations of fourth century theologians, early fathers of the faith, whose view of the cosmos and knowledge of science was very different from our own. In the fourth century, many things that we now understand as naturally caused were ascribed to God’s actions. It was an easy step to theologize that God caused and controlled everything.

Yet if we look to our Holy Book, there is nothing in scripture that suggests that God was or is able to prevent people from experiencing the consequences of living in a real world. Indeed, most of scripture is an extended reflection on how to live with the pain and the suffering of life in a real world.

The fact is that God created an ordered and predictable universe. Scientists have been working for centuries to understand that order. But with or without science, we can usually predict what will happen in our world. We can predict what will happen if we step off a cliff or in front of a bus. We know what will happen if we build homes on a flood plan or a fault line. We know what will happen if building codes are inadequate or there’s too much sand in the concrete. We know what will happen if we put a lot of people in a place with too little water or food. The world that God created is open to us and allows us to learn about it and to grow and organize our lives so as to live better.

And in this ordered world things collide – tectonic plates, weather systems, people and objects, ideologies, and nations – and when they do the consequences are predictable and often destructive. The Bible is the story of a people who conquered Palestine and then were themselves conquered over and over again. They saw their cities and their temple destroyed. They were carried off into exile. They were restored by foreign powers. They rebuilt their cities and their communities. Then they were conquered and nearly taxed into oblivion by the Roman Empire. And through it all, scripture says, God was with them.

Our faith is not that God will protect us from life in God’s ordered and predictable world. Our faith is that in the midst of that life God is with us to help us endure and to encourage us to live in ways that are closer to God’s intentions. The question for us is how do we connect more deeply to that life, how do we live more in tune with God’s intentions?

For the exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore the Temple, it was the keeping of the Law of Moses. Indeed the physical walls were a symbol of the wall created by the Law. The Law was the gift of God through Moses to God’s people. It gave the people an identity and an ethic, a way of life. Keeping the Law kept the people in touch with God’s intentions and distinguished them from those who lived outside the walls.

Paul doesn’t speak of a walled community, but he does speak, in equally concrete terms, of a body. The Christian community is like a human body, and all who are parts of the body have a role. People have many different gifts, but all can be used and, in the context of the body, none is superior to any other. Being part of the body connects us with Christ and distinguishes us from those who are not part of the body.

But the question remains… is this connection with God enough. Can it give us hope? What about being a walled city or a body can give us hope?

Those who have the Spirit of the Lord, who obey God’s law, who join with Jesus in fulfilling God’s intentions for the world, proclaim good news, freedom and recovery. They proclaim a world in which every person is part of God’s jubilee, the shalom, the harmony, which God intends for the cosmos. And they and God are working right now to make it happen.

Last Wednesday, the eighth day after the quake, I watched as a search and rescue team from New York freed a young girl and her little brother from the rubble of their home. As the young boy was raised from a hole in the ground his face broke into a huge grin and his arms were flung open wide in a spontaneous expression of the victory of life. At the joy of this rescue, all gathered broke into a roar and applause. That, for me, is our hope: not that the world will suddenly become magical, not that we will no longer suffer the predictable consequences of life in our world, but that, in the midst of death, life will emerge again. And we will have a chance, again, to live in harmony with God and one another. That’s the Good News – that God brings life from death and we can share in that life.

In our Baptismal Covenant we commit ourselves again to work with God to bring life from death, to be signs ourselves, of the hope that is in us. Does it make our lives easier? No… Indeed, it may make them harder. Does it make our lives safer? No… it may prompt us to take great risks. But it aligns us with the One whose will is to free and to heal and to recover. It will join us with God in God’s hope for the world. It joins us to a world in which the lives of 3,000,000 Haitians are essential to the harmony of our own lives. It joins us to a world in which new life rises from a hole in the ground. May it be so.

The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane is the Bishop of Maine.

Of creeds and covenants

By Torey Lightcap

Sunday after Sunday, presiders at Holy Eucharist rise following the sermon and try to say something pithy about what is immediately to follow. Too often, this introduction to the recitation of a creed – generally the Nicene Creed – misses the mark by a mile or two, betraying potential discomfort. For as well all know, being pithy and being liturgical don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand; the words of the liturgy stand on their own even if they’re not complete until spoken.

Among the many ways of mishandling this moment, my favorite is this: “And now let us stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.” (Wait … you want me to affirm my faith in what, now?) I enjoy this moment not only because it makes me cringe (as indeed I am a fan of the awkward), but more to the point, because it accidentally shows how unsure of the content of the Nicene Creed we can be. (If we affirm our faith in the words themselves, perhaps we needn’t affirm much else besides!)

As one who presides (and as a stickler for liturgy), I suffer likewise, having attempted lots of workarounds to what often feels like a ham-fisted half-attempt at leading a community at prayer:
• Lofty: “Let us rise in historic witness to our faith and say together the words of the Nicene Creed.”
• Unapologetic: “Turning to page 358 in the Prayer Book, (pause) we say together (pause): ‘We believe in one God…’”
• Invitational: “Would you stand, please, and join me in saying together the Creed.”
• Or I say nothing at all: pausing, standing, and starting the recitation.

In truth, in their execution not a single one of these ideas improves on the situation in the slightest, and we all know it. By allowing us to over-announce the obvious, they simply reveal our sometime dis-ease with what is about to happen.

The simple fact is that for many, the content of the creeds these days provides a stumbling block where once, and in many times, it was foundational to faith. It feels like a stumbling block, perhaps, because it seems to sound tinny and unenlightened in the ears of moderns, who busily ask themselves, Does this statement reflect reality? rather than the postmodern question, Is it lovely enough to be true? (So perhaps it’s not even a question not worth flagging – something generational due to pass its own way after a few decades of “parallel development”!)

But then, what other foundational statement invites any higher level of agreement? A friend relates that the originators of an emergent project to construct a contemporary-language version of the Bible required assent to the Nicene Creed among collaborators; he writes that it “was the linchpin that we could all assent to – liberals and conservatives, Catholics and Protestants, evangelicals, progressives, denominational and non-denominational.” Yet for all the consensus it generates, the Creed’s placement within Sundays, for me, has always felt like something of a sore thumb – the thing we do because “it’s what we’ve always done.”

I most assuredly speak out of both sides of my mouth, for I say all this as someone who is relieved that the Creed follows the sermon. If my homiletical foot has slipped out of place, or if I have broken a boundary on the way to making some point, I take great comfort that the Creed is there to suggest what is normative. In that moment, the Creed is the remembering of a grace-giving Law.

Still, to any parish priest with an open office door and a confirmation class to teach, these tensions aren’t new. Something better is longed for; nothing better is advanced; we fall back into what we know; and omitting the element from worship only makes things stranger because we miss it so. Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing these complaints for years about the longsuffering Nicene Creed. You know:

• it reflects a cosmology whose structure is not supported by science (i.e., heaven is “up” and death is “down” and “we” are somewhere in between);
• it holds the value of baptism as being salvific for Heaven only, having little or nothing to do with entering into earthly communities of believers;
• it allows only for the bodily resurrection of Christ;
• it turns the prophets into predictors of the future only, and takes away their function as critics of the society, religion, and government to which they were contemporaneous; and
• it envisages God, in both God’s one-ness and three-ness, as being strictly male.

If it wasn’t meant to do these things, we certainly have not been careful to point that out. That would be an equal failing of seminaries and priests.

Whoever’s at fault, in other words, the Nicene Creed can at times feel like a limited and limiting instrument of faith – proscribed, dogmatic positions rather than the kind of lively thing we hope for, and know, our worship can be.

Even so, when it comes right down to it, we tend to grit and stand and recite with everyone else. The instinct to do so is practically reptilian. It’s just written on our liturgical DNA.

We tell ourselves,
• “This is all just one big metaphor, one approach to a larger and ineffable truth, which I can ‘believe’ because I can spiritualize it; I don’t need it to really be true.”
• “It’s beautiful and poetic.”
• “I’ll say this part but not that part” or “I can cross my fingers for the next three lines” or “I shall stand, but I shall not speak.”
• “Maybe if I do this I’ll be a better Christian. After all, everyone has to have a place to stand.”
• “Saying the Creed puts me in line with history.”
• “The sermon was so heretical, we have to have something to get us back on track.”
• “If this thing has been around as long as they say, it must be worth something, so I’ll give it a shot.”
• “I dare not leave the crowd.”
• “Thank God for the communion of saints. If I can’t say this Creed with a straight face, perhaps my neighbor will do it for the both of us.”

We negotiate the creeds, wrestle with them; revere their supposed historical capacity for creating compromise; use them as personal theological counterbalance to weigh and sift belief. But too often – or perhaps this is only one priest’s imagining – we do not employ them in the actual worship of God. And all this interior negotiation is happening (must this really be said?) in the supposed context of the worship of God.

Talk about awkward.

A few congregations have elected to deal with this situation by simply setting the Nicene Creed aside, not saying it at all, or saying it only sporadically when it suits them (say, when the sermon is shorter, or when voices clamor for it), or not saying it when it doesn’t suit them. You can never tell which way that wind is going to blow. But really, that’s just the exception proving the rule.

Others have tried to write new creeds, but their chief characteristics are not primarily credal; that is, their first goal is not to set out the scope of believing, but rather to react: to not offend, or to pack it all in, or to correct the theology and language of existing creeds. These artifacts, such as Jim Rigby’s “A New Creed,” aren’t so much creeds as they are alternative creeds (heavy on the alternative):

I trust in God, universal parent, source of all power and being;
And in Jesus Christ, a unique expression of God and our guide for living:
conceived by the spirit of love,
born of Mary’s pure trust,
suffered under political oppression….

The fact remains that for most of us, the Nicene Creed is not a commodity up for editing: it’s part of what makes worship essential and whole. Even if our understanding of it is less than complete – even if its recitation is like swallowing medicine drawn from an unlabeled bottle – nevertheless we need it (or should we say the collective mood or feeling requires it) to make the worship experience seem complete. For most, it must be like the blessing or the Gospel reading or the Peace: the air we breathe at worship, the ground on which we stand.

Only the air and the ground are so common that we forget they’re even there. No wonder it seems so awkward: certainly we need air to breathe, but in this case that air consists of the recitation of the terms of a theological deal struck nearly 17 centuries ago in a vain attempt at unifying a religion that was being fitted for servanthood to the Romans. That could be some pretty stuffy air.

The Nicene Creed may have settled the collective hash of the Arian camp, but those who study history know that the Creed came with its own ultimatum: endorse it or be exiled.

If any of this seems oddly familiar, it’s because we are currently standing upon the crust of exactly the same precarious moment in which propositions are being thrust upon us with the demand of assent or exile. In the propounding of an Anglican Covenant, Anglicans have been asked worldwide to state, codify, and commit to a set of beliefs and the practices that inhere in such behaviors so as to determine who is and who is not Anglican, and that’s just not how Anglicanism works.

A powerless and hollow citizenship in the Anglican tribe may be offered to those who cannot sign the Covenant in good conscience, yet who hold the common purse, and that might make them out to be Judas when all they ever wanted was to state with clarity what Christian justice looked like within their own province.

Who among us would imagine that a few hundred years hence, Anglican catechesis (if such a thing there be) would include the memorization of a binding juridical formula for the purposes of recitation in worship? Will it be set to music?

Of course not. This Anglican Covenant – so long as it is primarily concerned with discrimination – would have about as much flavor and pith as last week’s gum. It would be made into footnotes and studied by those with specializations in history and theology, and it would be remembered not as compromise, but as con. It would be novel in the worst sense.

In short, it would reflect its own limited worldview, proscribe rather than describe Anglicanism, and be largely misunderstood. It would certainly not be used in the actions of praise. Really: under what circumstances would it become an instrument of faith and evangelism, or further clarify the meaning and intention of Christ?

All of which returns us to the Nicene Creed, with its limitations and imperfections and our great, inexplicable, and admittedly rote need for it.

Whether and how we handle particular articles of faith says a lot about us. Sometimes, in a sense, they say more about us than they say about God. And yet here is this thing that provokes both theological anxiety when it is present, and personal anxiety when it is absent. What more can be said of it, than that it has held us together as much as it has pricked at our ideologies and politics.

May we handle with great care not just what is already in print and has been recited for generations, but what has been set before us to shape for the generations that follow.

The snow shovel (or An illustration of God’s Providence)

Daily Episcopalian will continue on an every-other day schedule this week.

By Adam Thomas

Here’s something you don’t know about me: I don’t own a snow shovel. This fact was unimportant until a few weeks ago when a record December snowfall dropped two feet of powder on Berkeley County, West Virginia. I woke up to a foot of snow outside, and the sky was dumping an inch an hour. I opened my front door, and the snow made an encroaching barrier to my front stoop. I went to the cupboard and pulled out my house broom. Sweeping the snow from the steps, I felt like Gandalf staring down the Balrog: “You shall not pass!”

But a broom is a poor substitute for a proper shovel, especially with the quantity of snow making islands of every vehicle on the street. And this is where the providence of God comes in. Providence is a tricky thing because one can easily over-define it to a point where we are simply chess pieces for God to move around the terrestrial board. To make matters trickier, one can also under-define Providence to a deistic level: God is merely an observer, having set events in motion with the winding of creation’s clock long ago. Neither of these definitions is satisfactory. Theologian Paul Tillich strikes a balance when he says, “Providence is a permanent activity of God. He is never a spectator; he always directs everything toward fulfillment. Yet God’s directing creativity always creates through the freedom of man and through the spontaneity and structural wholeness of all creatures.”

So what’s all this have to do with my lack of a snow shovel? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes, encountering the Providence of God takes something quite small. We shall enter this small story during the early months of 2009, when a dear man from my congregation purchased a new car. He had been getting tired of his old Buick, and so he went for a shiny, silver Japanese sedan. But within a month of driving the car off the lot, he fell ill.

The cancer had been growing slowly, and for a time, the doctors held it at bay. The man spent several weeks in the hospital, until the medical staff, his family, and he decided that being comfortable in his own bed at home was as good for his condition as any drug. For several more weeks, he held on, making his wife laugh and cry, joking with the hospice nurses, slowly disintegrating from the inside. Not until his final day did the awareness, the flash in his eye, fade. He passed on in July, leaving his loving wife, a daughter, grandchildren, a cluttered house full of memories, and a brand new, silver, Japanese sedan.

Fast forward from midsummer to mid-autumn. A deer ran into my little Korean car, and the insurance company whisked it away to the total loss center to be evaluated. For some foolish reason, I didn’t have rental coverage as part of my plan. But I did have something even better: the man’s wife, who is the dear heart I’ve mentioned many times in blog entries over the last year. She found out that I was without a car, and asked (in her sweet, typical fashion) if I would help her out: “You see, his car’s been sitting in the garage since summer and if it doesn’t get driven, it will start to fall apart. I would be very pleased if you would drive it for me.”

I readily agreed to the arrangement, all the while smiling to myself because she made it sound like I was the one doing her a favor. After two weeks, my damaged car finally made it to the auto shop, the insurance company having decided it was worth repairing. I hoped to have it back by Thanksgiving, but the mechanic found more damage than the original estimate covered, which necessitated another visit from the adjuster. So when will it be done, I asked; by mid-December, the mechanic promised.

“Keep the car as long as you need to,” the dear heart said, when I told her the repairs were delayed. I suspect that if my car had been a total loss, she would have simply given me the shiny sedan because she’s just that generous a person. But I really like my car, so I was willing to wait out the repairs. I called the auto shop on December 17th hoping to hear that I could pick up the car that day. The collision was five weeks before, surely enough time to repair some front-end damage.

“Well, we took the car for a spin,” said the mechanic, “but it needs realigning so we put it on the lift and noticed something. Did you say your insurance company took the car to a total loss center first?” Yes, I said, not liking where this conversation was going. “Well,” the mechanic continued, “at those places, they use this kind of crane to lift the cars… We’d’ve never noticed it if we hadn’t put the car on the lift, but it looks like the crane cracked the fuel tank. So I need to get your adjuster out one more time to look at it.” Great, I thought. How long, I said. Another couple of weeks, what with the holiday and all, came the answer.

Two days later, the snow hit. With broom in hand, I stood on the front stoop and looked at the snow-covered Japanese sedan. The car had been driven a total of 317 miles before I took the wheel. I had put nearly two thousand miles on it during the last month. I thought about the dear man, a practical fellow, who bought the car last winter. I trudged out to the car, swept the snow from the trunk, and opened it. Inside was a shovel.

Now that’s Providence.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Levi-Strauss, Calvin and the Good News

By Greg Jones

Claude Levi-Strauss died recently at age 100. Perhaps the most influential anthropologist of the 20th century, Levi-Strauss revolutionized Western thought before his own lifetime was half-over.

His major contribution has been to undo an earlier notion popular in Western civilization that 'civilized' people were categorically different types of human beings from 'savages.' He argued that all humans have the same kind of brain, and all human societies are deeply complex and rich in meaning and significance. These days, we all recognize that ancient cultures, prehistoric cultures and modern cultures each have great depth, complexity of meaning, etc.

Levi-Strauss believed that beneath all human societies are structures and forms which are universal to the human being wherever and whenever he may be found.

I probably agree with him on these two points.

I disagree with Levi-Strauss, and many of his scientific disciples, when it comes to their fatalistic or deterministic beliefs. Yes, Levi-Strauss was committed to the idea that human beings are inexorably fated by nature, genetics, and other impersonal forces of the universe, to fairly determined outcomes in life.

I believe in free will, on the other hand, and I believe it is part of human nature just as much as our DNA.

In a couple of ways, Levi-Strauss reminds me of another famous Frenchman -- John Calvin. He also changed everything in his time and place, and many to this day consider themselves his disciples.

Calvin also saw a universal structure beneath all human order and society -- and that God put it there.

Like Levi-Strauss, Calvin believed humans were equal -- but in his particular way of seeing us all as equally depraved, hateful to God, and bound to produce societies and systems of meaning all sinful and bent away from God's love.

Calvin was also a determinist who believed that an Absolutely Sovereign Lord God had determined before Creation that some would be born to live, die and be condemned to Hell -- while others would be born to live, die and be saved.

Now, I agree with these fellows on certain points.

Again, I too agree all humans are equal -- from caveman to Frenchman, every man to any woman.

I also believe there is a deep structure to the cosmos, and our human essence carries it within us.

But, unlike Levi-Strauss, I believe the structure of things is not soul-less material, and I don't believe we are but pawns of natural fatalism.

Like Calvin, I think God has created the cosmos and is the author of its forms, structures and laws. (And I believe mathematics and science are capable of discerning what many of these are.)

But unlike Calvin, I don't believe human beings are created equal only in our capacity for sin.

We are not merely alike in sin and mortality -- but as bearers of God's image -- and owners of sacred dignity and an inborn likeness of God as persons capable of choice, of free will, of a capacity to love and serve; just as God chooses to love and serve us.

You see, I believe Scripture teaches this revelation about human nature -- and that Christ himself is the fulfillment of God's wish for human nature -- and that Christ is in fact the deep structure of the cosmos. Yes, I believe that human beings are beautiful vessels made by God to carry on His structure and essence, and that far from being worthless, we are priceless to God -- which is why he loved us so much that he took human form, died on a cross, and redeems us from sin and death.

Yes, I believe Scripture teaches all this, and Jesus fulfilled it, and that in fact Christ has already forgiven us, defeated the long-term goals of Satan, and is now like a mother seeking to gather us up who wait for Him.

To me -- the deep face of the cosmos is not that of an angry despotic sovereign, or a distant swiss watchmaker, but a humble mother who suffers the loss of everything, but keeps the faith, adopts a new child who has also lost it all, guides her in love, and becomes the forebear of a redeemed human family. Like Naomi.

I believe the deep order of the cosmos isn't reduced to earthly laws and requirements, but is in fact the beating heart of the Holy One who gives mercy, hope and love to we who so desperately need it.

The old widow who gives all she has in faith is more like God than John Calvin or Levi-Strauss -- who seem to believe either God is all-controlling or non-existent.

The old widow who gives up every last bit of power and control that she has (and it's all only worth but two small coins) and yields it to this God of mercy -- and says, "Lord, I'm giving you all I have, and now I am trusting that you will take care of me."

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ, my friends, is that He will. And it is in our thankfulness for God's loving mercy that we begin as disciples. Our thanks for God's mercy is the basis of our life in Christ - as disciples and missionaries of the Gospel.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Liturgical roots, baptismal theology: where "full inclusion" comes from

By Linda L. Grenz

A reading of press reports about the 76th General Convention might suggest the only topic debated (again) was sexuality – or, more precisely, homosexuality. Sometimes this happens simply because the press does not know much about our history or theology. Unfortunately that often means our members get misinfornmation about why this topic is relevant to our church and why we are devoting attention to it.

Our focus is on inclusion and this is not new – it is something we have been working on for decades. It grew out of the liturgical renewal movement that began to have a significant impact on the church in the early 20th century. The desire to renew the church's liturgy led scholars to re-examine the church's worship and theology. Their research and the discovery of previously unknown texts led liturgical scholars to re-vision how we worship.

Liturgical scholars realized the earliest Christians gathered around the dining room table and it is likely that the hosts presided. As membership grew and services became more formal, the order of priests was established to assist the bishop. This led to the clericalization of the liturgy as priests became more central to worship services and laity became mere observers.
The priest became the primary actor, the one who said the liturgy and did the ministry. The people become passive recipients. Their role was to “pay,” “pray” and not “say” much more than “amen” or “and also with you!”

As liturgical scholars began to re-shape the liturgy to make it more participatory, the roles of clergy and laity also changed. This change was driven by another aspect of the liturgical renewal movement – the re-visioning of baptismal theology. In the early church, baptism was a transformative rite of passage. In baptism, one died to one's old self and rose with Christ to a new life as a redeemed child of God. One’s baptism profoundly changed one, both now and for eternity.

As priests became the primary leader of the congregation, the bishop, who used to lead the congregation, had no connection to the local community. What would be the bishop's role? One response was to separate the anointing with oil from the rest of the baptismal liturgy. This led to the creation of Confirmation, and the development of a theology that one needed to “complete” one's baptism by being confirmed by the bishop. The liturgical renewal led the church to move baptism back to the center of the church's life (vs. a private ceremony) and to restore the anointing to the baptismal rite.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer wholeheartedly embraced the re-visioned baptismal theology – and emphasized it by adding the five questions that spell out baptismal living after the Creed. Because we believe that how we pray shapes what we believe, it became a means of incorporating this baptismal theology into the life and practice of the church. Those five questions, in particular, led to theorization that baptism meant full inclusion which resulted in the church re-examining the role of laity, of people of color, of women and of children and youth.

The 1960s saw the church take significant steps to support and sometimes lead the effort to establish equal rights for blacks. In the church, blacks were elected to leadership roles.

Women in most dioceses began to serve on vestries in the 1950's and 60's. Laity began to read lessons and lead the prayers at the liturgy. The first women deputies to General Convention were seated in 1970 and girls began to serve as acolytes. The 1976 General Convention voted to permit the ordination of women as priests.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s and 90s, laity were appointed as Eucharistic Ministers, allowed to administer the chalice at the Eucharist and later to take the Eucharist to the sick and shut-ins. Children were allowed to receive the Eucharist as soon as they were baptized. Youth were appointed to vestries and given voice at diocesan conventions and at General Convention.

In 2003 the General Convention voted to confirm the election of an openly gay man by the Diocese of New Hampshire. It also engaged in a conversation about whether or how to bless the relationships between same sex couples.

Each of these changes was challenging to some members. Each time we changed the liturgy or the rules to include another group of people in a previously prohibited arena, we lost some members who could not reconcile that change with their theology. The latest focus on the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people grows out of this long history of the church seeking to apply the baptismal theology that says that in baptism we are all transformed by Christ, becoming equal children of God. It is part of the church's long engagement in the spiritual practice of seeking to be the Body of Christ – the place where all the baptized are equally welcome.

One of the most moving experiences at General Convention was when some deputies and bishops joined the largely Hispanic group of Disney workers protesting Disney's plan to eliminate health care benefits for many of them. The largest march in Anaheim's history put the church on the side of those who are poor, often oppressed and living at the margins. But what was remarkable was that when Bishop Robinson, the gay bishop who is the focus of much of our talk about homosexuality, was introduced – the Disney workers burst into applause. It turns out they knew who he was and what he stood for – and they identified with him. You can bet that Episcopal churches in Anaheim are having lots of new Hispanic seekers coming, along with many of our congregations who are finding people who otherwise would not trust coming to church or who are at the margins of society, coming to us. The good news is that those souls are hearing: ALL are welcome at God's table. And that is worth the cost of struggling through all of these sometimes awkward or difficult changes.

The Rev. Linda L. Grenz is president of Leader Resources and priest-in-charge at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver Spring, Md. A version of this article appears in the September issue of Washington Window.

When tradition and modernity collide

By George Clifford

Raffaellino Del Garbo’s painting, "Resurrection of Christ,” hangs in the Academia Gallery in Florence, Italy. Painted about 1500-05, this piece depicts the risen Christ's empty tomb and beatific face, the soldiers’ faces and arms, Mary’s face and attire, and the surrounding scenery in early16th century Italian imagery foreign to first century Palestine.

On the one hand, the painting seems a giant non-sequitur. Jesus and Mary were both first century Palestinian Jews; the soldiers, perhaps ancestors of sixteenth century Italians, were certainly first century Roman legionnaires; the surrounding area and tomb were in the environs of Jerusalem, not Florence.

On the other hand, paintings that translate biblical scenes and events into the painter’s locale and historical period remain a popular genre because of our need to make the Bible and its stories contemporary. Mid-twentieth century American art portraying a black Jesus echoed this aim. Making the Bible contemporary is important because one function of much Christian art is to invite the viewer (or listener, reader, etc.) to enter into the biblical story, to there encounter God, and through a dialectical process to experience an inner transformation.

The controversy that swirled around portrayals of a black Jesus illustrates how the powerful – in this case Caucasians – can misuse Christianity, seeking to force the marginalized and disempowered to accept the image of Christ, along with its associated theology, sanctioned by the powerful. By controlling what constitutes acceptable art, the powerful attempt to protect their privileged status, ensuring that for whatever experience the art may be a catalyst, the experience will reinforce or at least not undermine the elite’s dominance. Thanks be to God, the Episcopal Church has largely progressed beyond the era in its history when it unofficially and yet powerfully promoted Caucasian dominance.

Like oil paints or watercolors, theological language and liturgical actions are artistic mediums. Christian religious discourse and worship sketch pictures, inviting hearers to enter into the biblical story, to there encounter God, and through a dialectical process to experience inner transformation. At its best, Christian worship, for example, is a drama that invites participants to enter into the Jesus story. Couching the drama in contemporary language, as preachers through the centuries have discovered, makes the story feel more relevant, more inviting to those present. Rafaellino Del Garbo understood this. The artists who portrayed Jesus as a black man understood this.

William Young understood this when he wrote his novel, The Shack, casting God as a black woman. While certainly not great literature and arguably reflecting poor theology, this bestseller did not unleash a torrent, or even trickle, of criticism for Young portraying God as either black or a woman. Admittedly, the pervasive masculine terms for God found in the Book of Common Prayer, much theological discourse, and too many sermons underscore the distance we have yet to travel before fully dethroning masculine dominance from Christianity.

The Episcopal Church sits at a crossroads. The Church, on several fronts, must choose between a static, centuries-old portrayal of Jesus and the Bible, a perspective increasingly remote from twenty-first century American life, and a dynamic portrayal of Jesus, retelling his story in images and language relevant and comprehensible to post-moderns. Cutting-edge challenges exist not only with respect to human sexuality but also at other points at which theology collides with advances in science.

Will the Episcopal Church succumb to fundamentalist pressures from within and without the Anglican Communion to become a Church that seeks creedal uniformity? The cost of choosing that direction is to concretize Jesus’ charisma, the vital Spirit of the living God. This displaces risky personal encounters that can lead to life-giving transformation with safe and standardized creedal orthodoxy. Such formulas are like good Christian art: appropriate to a particular moment in the spatio-temporal matrix and not eternally definitive.

Alternatively, will the Episcopal Church continue down the risky but exciting and dynamic path that is consistent with our time-honored Anglican tradition: praying together, living in unity in spite of theological and ethical diversity, preserving an openness through our linguistic and liturgical art to God's ongoing revelation? One cost of choosing this direction is that the Episcopal Church may not move, as it strives to be faithful to the mind of Christ, in concert with other members of the Anglican Communion. A potential cost of choosing this direction is that the Episcopal Church may misunderstand what God is saying and move in a wrong direction. True discipleship always entails that risk. Thanks be to God we serve a loving, forgiving God who is bigger than any possible mistake we might make.

Choose this day whom you will serve: the dead, institutionalized idol of time-bound religion or the living God that no earthly artistic image, regardless of the medium, can faithfully depict? That choice confronts the Episcopal Church at its 2009 General Convention in Anaheim. I pray that the Episcopal Church will wisely avoid unnecessary votes, harmful posturing, the temptation to reject the new in favor of the time-bound, and the temptation to reject fresh insights into the depth of God's all-embracing love for ephemeral firework

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Becoming Episcopalian: one priest's journey

By Donald Schell

The church where I was baptized and grew up hovered on the edge of mainstream. Officially we were part of the Presbyterian Church, USA, but we were taught that we were Evangelicals, solid on our fundamentals and so confident that our personal decision for Christ made us Christian in a way that liberals (despite what they said) were not. Our youth group activities took us to Baptist and Independent Fundamentalist churches. I sat through a lot of altar calls. A spirituality of ‘knowing Jesus’ was deeply rooted then and still lives for me. But ‘Making a decision for Christ’ and the horror story version of atonement that I heard preached did not fit.

In one dark day in Sunday School, our teacher told us this story of a hanging judge in the Old West:

“There was a judge who was bringing peace to a land ravaged by cattle rustlers and gunslingers. More often than not the judge’s passion for justice in that lawless land moved him to condemn the guilty to death by hanging. One day a man was found guilty of stealing a horse and the judge condemned him to be hanged by the neck until dead. The town was appalled. There were extenuating circumstances. The man was their neighbor, married with children, their sole support. When the condemned was a dangerous stranger, the respectable townspeople were glad for the hanging judge, but this time they were horrified. They begged the judge for mercy. The insisted the condemned man was a good neighbor. It was his first offense. “No,” the judge thundered, “justice must be served; a horse has been stolen, so someone has to die.” A stranger stood near the back of the courtroom spoke with startling calm, “Your honor, hang me, and let the condemned man go free.” The judge seemed caught off guard, paused, frowned, and said, “Son, do you understand what you’re doing?” “Yes, your honor. I have no family. I will die for this man’s freedom.” So the judge ordered the horse thief released and the stranger hanged by the neck until dead. And when they cut the stranger down, the judge stunned the whole town by asking all, including the horse thief to join him at the funeral for his only son.”

The story made me angry. My Sunday School teacher assured us it was a true story, and I did understand it was meant to teach us something about Jesus’ death on the cross, but the father/judge was a monster, and the son was a fool. One pointless death replaced another. The townspeople should have done whatever they needed to do to stop the judge from murdering in the name of ‘Justice.’ I took the story home and told it to my parents, lifelong members of this congregation. My mother said, “The story is not right, and God didn’t kill Jesus.”

I’m thankful today that even as a child, I recoiled from that ugly story, and I’m thankful for my mother’s response. She didn’t offer an alternative atonement theory, but she did model that a story of heartless retribution wasn’t pointing us toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The ugliness of the story was an assault on faith, and my aversion to such a monstrous story was a theological response. Why is this adamant ‘NO’ theological? Because, like mathematicians and physicists, beyond mere logic, we test our theology for elegance and economy. Gregory of Nyssa says God’s beauty makes us long for God, moves us to fall in love. If this story were really ‘it’--the Good News-- I could only say ‘NO!’

As a kid, I loved Bible stories and found some big parts of what I was offered for theology off-putting. The community of people in the church obviously cared about each other and gave generously of themselves for the church’s work. I loved them. I also loved music (including ancient and renaissance church music and global music), old church buildings (like California’s adobe mission churches and the Orthodox log church at Fort Ross), so loving the community of people I longed for worship that invited real participation from all of us.

In the turbulent 1960’s after the deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I entered Princeton Seminary. Leaders of our Presbyterian church (like many denominational leaders and activists then) were actively working for peace and racial justice. I was deeply relieved finally to be in a church where people didn’t think Martin Luther King was a communist--some walls had come down. It would be possible to explore and deepen faith. In the openness of my first year at Princeton I first met and fell head-over-heels in love with the writings of the early church fathers like Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa. I heard a new voice determined to describe how human experience and faith-in-community could lead to ongoing formation and growth in Christ. The seminary professor who was offering us these riches from Christian tradition was a Russian Orthodox layman who had been a minister in the United Church of Christ. For most of 1968-69, I thought I was going to follow his lead. I’d found in Russian Orthodoxy a church that could give me a more coherent answer, a church that knew what it stood for. I planned to complete my year at Princeton, become Orthodox, transfer to St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary and spend my ministry with a community I understood and that understood me.

I applied to St. Vladimir’s and was admitted pending a face-to-face interview with the seminary’s dean. I drove from Princeton up to Crestwood-Tuckahoe, New York and spent a wonderful hour talking with John Meyendorff. Fr. Meyendorff quizzed me on theology, seemed satisfied at what he was hearing, and then asked where I was going to church. I told him the Episcopal Church at Princeton (the University Chaplaincy). Did I receive communion? Yes. He said, “Then you are an Episcopalian, and you don’t have to become Orthodox. You may be where God wants you to be.”

This was the year I read and re-read The Brothers Karamazov. I felt myself in the presence not just of a scholar, but a staretz, a spiritual elder with a good dose of the wisdom of Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zossima. This saint was telling me I might already be home. He said I was welcome at the seminary if I chose to come, but he had a request first. ‘Your vision of this church has been formed from reading our ancient teachers and their best modern interpreters. But we’re a church with a lot superstitious immigrants. Go the bookstore and buy what the store manager can sell you of Orthodox Sunday School materials. Don’t come unless you understand who you will be working with if you become an Orthodox priest.’

The bookstore manager greeted me jovially, heard my story and congratulated me. "‘I’ve walked this path too. Welcome to the truth faith. You will come to loathe the Presbyterians and regard the Episcopalians as clowns." I was taken aback at his mean-spirited response. Presbyterians had taught me to love Jesus. In the Episcopal Church I’d begun to understand common prayer. These communities had given me a priceless foundation. After my conversation with an open-hearted saint and that bookstore manager who I feared might be me in a couple of years, I took my Sunday School books and drove home talking to myself, elated, weeping, perplexed, and trying to find where in this conflicted experience God was speaking.

My Italian landlady in Princeton had a good Catholic answer for a good Evangelical. ‘Go to Sacred Heart Church and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus will tell you what to do.’ I was shocked at it, but Jesus seemed to want me to accept that I’d already found my home in the Episcopal Church. For good measure, I left Sacred Heart to go spend a little more time on my knees at Trinity Episcopal in Princeton. Jesus was saying the same thing there. I phoned John Snow, the Episcopal chaplain, my pastor, and one of the best preachers I’d ever heard (or have heard since). “John, I need to talk to you. I think I’m becoming an Episcopalian.”

John and I had a great conversation. I told him all the theological stuff I was working on and he said, ‘We’ve got plenty of room for you.’ I told him I thought the Episcopal Church was actually a mess theologically, a church without a backbone, incapable of standing for anything. He smiled and said, ‘maybe you’ll come to appreciate that.’ I have.

John helped me make a very late transfer application to General Seminary. I went home to California to work that summer in the Presbyterian Church where I’d grown up. It was a good summer; I was glad not to be making a conversion that stripped away and repudiated the good people who had taught me to love scripture, community, and an abiding, mystical friendship with Jesus. Starting General Seminary in September, almost the first thing I discovered in the theological mess I’d now embraced was that my professor for the Pauline Epistles, a priest who seemed to be an existentialist agnostic, was with us in the chapel daily praying Morning and Evening Prayer, and he came faithfully to the community’s weekly Eucharist. Remembering John Snow’s words I wondered at my new professor’s faith. Could this be how my new church’s theological messiness was a holy gift? Maybe there was some grace in sharing prayer and Eucharist with Christians I didn’t understand. Maybe the gift was praying with this priest I didn’t understand and (still not understanding him) discovering he was my brother in Christ.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Orthodoxy’s Inclusive Embrace

By Donald Schell

Irenaeus and standards of ‘orthodoxy’ have figured significantly in recent public discussion of the bishop elect of Northern Michigan, Kevin Thew Forrester. It now appears (unless some standing committees and perhaps some bishops reconsider their votes) that the public work of a faithful pastor will be used and quoted against him to prevent his consecration as bishop by the people of his diocese who chose him and bishops and clergy of our church who worked closely with them through an extended discernment process. In this process ‘orthodoxy’ has emerged as a line in the sand and Irenaeus has been invoked as a vigilant enforcer of it. I don’t recognize the spirit of Irenaeus in this effort.

Irenaeus comes into the discussion because Fr. Thew Forrester regularly quotes this important early theologian. I’ve enjoyed that in Thew Forrester’s work beginning with I Have Called you Friends: an Invitation to Ministry, which I first read eighteen months or so ago, before the election prompted this controversy. I recognized immediately that this book with its strong, vibrant picture of shared ministry and mission and its vision of our growing into maturity in Christ counted on sources like my old friend Irenaeus and as I read recalled with pleasure my first encounter with Irenaeus’ arguments for Christian orthodoxy against the ‘false Gnostics.’ Irenaeus appealed to the church’s public teaching and the lineage of teacher-bishops who carried that teaching back to Christ. Irenaeus claims apostolic succession in an unbroken lineage of public teaching, in other words, Irenaeus’ generous and inclusive definition of Christian orthodoxy rests on his appeal to the church’s public teaching.

Sometimes people take ‘orthodoxy’ to mean ‘holding the line.’ Irenaeus’ adversaries were teaching (to initiates) that there was a firm line and clear definition of what belonged to God and what did not. Responding to that impulse, Irenaeus boldly claimed that everything that had breath lived by the Spirit of God. For Irenaeus the theological line was incarnational, defending his broadly inclusive understanding of reconciliation (or atonement) through recapitulation - ‘what he [Christ] did not assume, he did not save.’ From Irenaeus it’s a short step to Gregory Nazianzen, ‘He became what we are that we might become what he is.’ Like the major theologians of the several centuries that followed him, Irenaeus was working to keep Christian faith grounded in human experience and open to God’s embrace of all people.

Following St. Paul, and echoing the Gospel of John (in a passage Desmond Tutu quotes enthusiastically) Irenaeus readily insisted that Christ lifted up on the cross drew all people to himself as he had taken all of human life to himself, moment by moment throughout Jesus’ life among us. Irenaeus takes on elitism, secret knowledge. The orthodoxy Irenaeus defends so fiercely proclaims God’s longing to embrace us all. Orthodoxy, in Irenaeus use, holds an opening for universal salvation, union, and knowledge of God. It is quite explicitly a celebration of the Divine Embrace of all of human existence and all of life. The rarefied ‘knowledge’ of the false Gnostics privileged the immutable perfection of God and the limited means of regaining access to knowledge or vision of God. Heresy in Irenaeus’ thinking was this teaching of a partial, exclusivist salvation – only the noetic/spiritual part of who we are and that only for a few, highly select people.

Irenaeus’ theology makes the Spirit very active wherever there is life. John’s Gospel warns us the Spirit, blowing where it will, may take us to some unexpected places. The argument against accepting Northern Michigan’s election has drawn on passages from Kevin Thew Forrester’s sermons. I’ve disagreed with some of the diagnosis and interpretation of possible theological problems critics have found in statements Thew Forrester has made, but more to the point, as a preacher, I believe that we keep an ear open to those outside of church, listen to their longing and questions, weigh the best in our common culture and discourse, and take some risks formulating Good News of God’s work among us. Even Episcopalians who attend church most frequently spend most of their time living outside church working with people who think out-of-church thoughts. Good preachers, faithful preachers DO make mistakes. Lively engaged preachers must make mistakes sometimes. The theological risks we take in public become part of the church’s great conversation. The discovery (or blunder) any one of us happens on (or into) preaching has far more power as it is appropriated, corrected, reshaped, and blessed (or rejected) by the community to which we’re preaching. Our faithful task is to tell the great story of God’s love for us in Jesus and include and bless as much of our people’s experience in it as we can.

From Irenaeus on through the first seven ecumenical councils, the steady impetus of the original definition of orthodoxy was to celebrate how completely and how intimately God has joined God’s self to us, our humanity, and our world and how our genuine knowledge of God is experience of being drawn into God in Christ. Not just in Irenaeus, but throughout the great Christological controversies of the first eight centuries, orthodoxy consistently rejected enlightened, high-minded efforts to narrow, refine, protect, and make wholly consistent the church’s faith and practice. Sometimes (as in the third council designating Mary as Theotokos, bearer or birth-giver of God) they dignified unauthorized local liturgical innovations by allowing the new words to carry the doctrinal weight of demonstrating how completely God had taken on our life and experience.

I DO want to be held accountable for my preaching by Irenaeus’ underlying standard of orthodoxy, one I strive to live into. I ask myself: Am I as a preacher consistently looking for the words, stories, and interpretation of Biblical and other inspired texts that make God’s action among us clearer and more evident to even the most ordinary listener? Am I committed enough to being a guide and catalyst in that search to risk making some serious mistakes? Do I (and the congregation over time) have an unfolding discovery that in our preaching conversation (including its missteps and blunders) ‘we have the mind of Christ’? I’m grateful for the dead-ends that I’ve explored as a preacher, and even for the blunders I’ve made. I’m profoundly grateful that it’s been a real conversation challenged by the real experience and faith of people I’ve had the privilege of preaching with. I’m glad that after thirty-seven years, I can tell a congregation that I and we are still learning, still trying to find words that are sharp enough or evocative enough to point compellingly toward the mystery of perfect Love. I’ve argued elsewhere that such risk-taking is exactly the orthodoxy that the church of the first eight centuries was struggling to protect.

Watching our church, hearing bishops and standing committees across the whole Episcopal Church report that they’ve been poring over the preaching of a missionary theologian, checking the ‘orthodoxy’ of every word and phrase, because this pastor is now bishop-elect of Northern Michigan troubles me. My experience of thirty-seven years of priesthood is that our Episcopal churches preachers have gotten steadily better. We’re trying to preach honestly, to speak to human experience, to read Scripture with love and passion, and to take risks. Why would we subject any preacher who is actively engaged in pastoral and missionary theology to a line by line scrutiny of sermons-once-preached to see if phrases drawn from ancient Christian and contemporary cultural sources might be taken to imply something that deviates from a central ‘core of orthodoxy.’ Irenaeus’ insistent definition of the central core of orthodoxy would have us bend the opposite direction. Christ has taken all things on or into himself.

Are we giving orthodoxy a bad name? Or is it that others - our own schismatics and some Anglicans in the Global South - have already made orthodoxy problematic for us, except that now we know no way to reclaim the word but on their terms? Irenaeus’ orthodoxy isn’t a tight, closed fellowship, but a broad, moving river. He boldly innovates and embellishes to make clear his conviction that the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ is, in Christ, embracing the whole world, that every moment and aspect of Jesus’ living and dying is saturated with God’s presence and has its own power to unite us to God, and that the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Purity and the necessary absense of honesty

By Adrian Worsfold

Episcopal Café has reported that Rev. Kevin Genpo Thew Forrester will not become a bishop. According to Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, on his Bible Belt Blogger blog, 56 standing committees have been counted saying no and Kevin Forrester needs a majority of 110. Bishops have been more coy about their views but the standing committees are crucial anyway. There is still the possibility that some will change their mind before the 120-day voting period ends in July but this seems unlikely.

Kevin Forrester has faced criticism ever since he was elected to be bishop as the only candidate in Northern Michigan. That itself drew criticism. The first actual criticism of the theological and ecclesiastical right was that he was a potential 'Buddhist bishop', whereas his lay ordination within Buddhism and that name Genpo was a reflection of the seriousness of his practice. This itself proved not to be enough to sway opinion. The criticism of more effect centered around his apparent doctrinal changes that were implied or made explicit in baptismal, creedal and Easter liturgical changes.

Basically, Kevin Forrester has been a convenient way to show that The Episcopal Church is still 'orthodox' and one must wonder how many standing committees have taken advantage of the evidence of liturgical changes to prevent his bishop-ing to make the wider point. A priest with the same views as Forrester, but who goes on using the same given materials, is far more likely to be accepted for elevation. The point would be made that the public continues to worship in the same way, and also if a minister is invalid in any sense, the frozen liturgy means that his or her invalidity is not effective.

I have used some of Kevin Forrester's liturgical material, but I can because I did it in a Unitarian church. I was pushing my luck a bit actually in a Christocentric direction to do it, but I could see why it might be awkward in an orthodox setting.

Kevin Forrester is a person of honesty and integrity. He is not alone in his views, but he just makes them more explicit and more open and he wants to use them, not hide them. But unfortunately, people like him (and I would add me) who make our views known before we go towards any selection process will get stopped at some point, whereas those who keep their views to themselves can, of course, be selected. Freedom comes with retirement, for such people. Some people, of course, change in office, so future preferment is prevented if they are open and they either stagnate or go off on some sideline activity.

Some people who hide their true views, or express them within the complexities of theological talk (sounds like one thing but means another) will say they make a necessary compromise, because of a commitment to the wider ideals of their Church and of course there is a collective line to obey, rather like being in cabinet government or in a political party (and look what happens, as at present in the UK, when discipline deserts and different tendencies become far too obvious). The problem is that this encourages duplicity within the very profession where duplicity ought to be absent.

Curiously, my own justification for an Anglican way is more Buddhist than Christian, that the idea of a spiritual discipline via regular sharing liturgically is to build oneself towards a hoped for condition of selflessness and love to the other. I can't tell you about any success in this, and I have no measuring equipment of any accuracy. I bet I am more Buddhist about this dharma approach than Kevin Forrester. I do not have any belief in the supernatural, and get fed up with the bizarreness of a statement about what God might be doing in my life or anyone else’s. I am of course guilty of using texts far more conservative than my own beliefs, though I think to some degree this is an inevitable necessity (even when rewriting takes place: I bet Kevin Forrester has the same difficulty - but the reasoning and precedence for this within a liberal community was set by the English theologian James Martineau). I do not believe that Jesus was God in any particular sense (the best is that he is a useful exemplar) and nor do I believe in a unique objective resurrection. He is crucified because of a Roman regime rather than anything particular that he has done. I'm a thoroughly liberal postmodern, having to dredge texts from the past to be useful spiritual texts, but having pretty much a social anthropological and psychological view on the functioning of religion.

I don't seek to impose my views on anyone, but I express them. It is good that there are a scattering of active priests who hold similar views in the Church of England and other denominations (I know of some of them), but we don't hear from them very often and some arrived at such views as a result of theological training and continued study. There are some retired priests and bishops with views similar and roughly similar to very liberal and postmodern views in the British Isles. It would be good to have one or two active, in employment and open, but it seems not to be so within the Anglican boundary, and seems not to be so in the United States Episcopal Church too. Bishop Spong is retired too, and his manifesto and any changes of effect would prevent him getting consents too.

So I say, you can use this refusal to consent in battles against the so called self-defined orthodox - let's call them ultra-orthodox for clarity and all their web chatter. Purity is now demonstrated, but purity with the pollution of a necessary absense of honesty.

It is my view that creedal religion encourages dishonesty, though not that it is exclusive in having dishonesty. But it does, and here has been a demonstration.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Salvation: what it isn't

By Derek Olsen

A year or so back, I was in a wonderful Sunday School class studying the Paul’s letter to the Romans. One of my comrades brought in a tract that he’d been handed or had been left on his car (I forget which) that asked in big bold letters on the front “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” The inside sheets were filled with possible answers like: be a good person, get baptized by sprinkling, get baptized by dunking, etc. If I recall correctly the tract’s intent was that all of these were wrong and that verbal confession of a special formula was the point a la Romans 10:10, a passage we’d been discussing. Needless to say, in a group of Episcopalians this tract made for some interesting discussion and for a while the class wrestled with how to answer the question. What jumped out at me the most wasn’t how they chose to answer, but the fact that we had let the tract set the question. And as far as I’m concerned it’s the wrong question.

Getting to heaven and what we have to do to get there is not the point of being a Christian.

“Getting to heaven” has become cultural shorthand for Christian salvation. But Christian salvation is fundamentally not about getting to heaven.

It’s Easter time which is the perfect time to re-orient and get a hold of ourselves and remember who we are and what we’re about. Easter is about life. It’s about the abundant life that flows from God and the divine love which is (as St John reminds us) an integral part of who and what God is. The creeds insist that on that Easter night Jesus rose, not just as a fond remembrance or a fuzzy memory, but as a physical body bursting with life, filled with the life of God. As the Easter Vigil hymn reminds so beautifully:

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave…How blessed is this night when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God…”

This hymn, the Exultet, is the dedication of the Paschal Candle, the first great symbol of the Risen Christ which is then directly connected through ritual word and act to the baptismal font—to which the service naturally flows. Because baptism is about life. Paul insists in Romans 6 that while we share in Christ’s death spiritually in baptism, drowning the old Adam, the new life we receive is actual. It’s the real thing.

Being a Christian isn’t about getting to heaven. Being a Christian is about participating in new life, in divine life, sharing in the very life of God. In baptism we have been—in my favorite phrase from Paul—“hid with Christ in God.”

This is both the point and the purpose of Christian salvation. It’s not about waiting around to go somewhere or existing in some state after we die; it’s about participating in the life of God both now and later. Life is the point. Opening our eyes to and taking hold of what God has done for us in creation, in incarnation, in the crucifixion and the resurrection—that’s the point. The purpose is no less clear. It’s to live that life and to share it, to help it expand to others.
It’s to live a life hid with God in Christ.

And I’d tell you exactly what that phrase means, except that I’m not sure myself.

Oh, I have some ideas. One revolves around how much the New Testament uses the word “abide” as an activity that God does with Jesus and Jesus does with God and that we do with Jesus and therefore we can do with God and so on and so forth. Abide. Sometimes I think it means just lying in the presence of God in prayer and sometimes I think it means walking in love as Christ loved us and sometimes I think those are just two small parts of the fullness of what it really means. I’ll keep working on abiding…

Another idea has to do with our good ol’ Anglican worship. It’s how certain moments catch me and throw me—sometimes in church or sometimes days later—and give me a taste, a moment, that I can put my finger on and say, “Wow—that definitely connects to the life of God.” Worship doesn’t just fit us for the life of God but gives us moments and examples with which to see the slow yet steady spread of the lushness of God’s life and God’s will into our life that twines around the pillars of our hearts and with its soft, seeking roots cracks through calcified compassion.

In short, I’d tell you—but I think it’s got to be lived not told.

This Easter enjoy life, embrace life, share life, and live out a life hid with Christ in God.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Touch me and see

By R. William Carroll

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:36ff.)


Touch me and see.

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples after he rose from the dead.

Touch me, he said, and see.

This is more or less Luke’s version of the Gospel we heard last week from John. You know, the one about doubting Thomas. To a large extent, as it was in that story, so it is here. Some disciples have seen the risen Lord; others have not. Then, Jesus himself appears, standing among them. And he says, touch me and see.

The two stories are not identical, though. Remember how Jesus concludes his encounter with Thomas, by observing that “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe”?

In today’s Gospel by contrast, Jesus rubs our noses in his flesh. He appeals to touch, the crudest of our senses, to show us his risen body. The point? He is no ghost. He is not merely a spiritual apparition. First, he offers us his body to inspect. Then, he asks us to bring him a piece of fish—and he eats it right in front of us.

Touch me and see, says Jesus, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Then, he shows us his hands and his feet. The scars of his passion still mark his risen body. We know Jesus by his wounds—by what he suffered for us in the flesh.

Jesus gives himself to us as saving victim. Because he has tasted suffering and death, he can offer us new life. Because he returns with mercy for those who put him to death, we can trust him to be our judge. Jesus comes to offer us forgiveness. He forgives us for falling away—for betraying and denying him in his hour of need.

His risen flesh is important. For, without it, God’s desire to become incarnate would be frustrated and defeated by human evil. God wants to be Emmanuel—God with us in the flesh. And God has raised Jesus in his BODY, so that God can continue to dwell among us in the flesh. The body of Jesus signifies the full extent of our salvation. Jesus saves not just our souls but also our bodies. At great price to himself, he has redeemed our mortal flesh, and he is making us holy—here and now.

In recent years, it’s become fashionable to view early Christian heresies as suppressed movements for human liberation. Under the influence of such writers as Elaine Pagels, some are calling these heresies by a new name—“alternative Christianities.”

When considering the merits of this account of Christian origins, it is important to remember what particular problems there were that Irenaeus, the great champion of orthodoxy, found in Gnostics and similar heretics. These people denied the goodness of creation. They denied that the Creator of the universe is the same good God as the Father of Jesus. And lastly, they denied that Jesus came and suffered in the flesh. I would submit to you that there is nothing particularly progressive or liberating in these theories. On the basis of apostolic witness, the Church ruled them out, and we were right to do so.

In fact, those who espouse such theories may be rendered passive and docile when faced with human suffering or oppression. They may be more easily duped by the seductive glitter of markets that offer us endless empty choices but no real alternatives. And they may, in the end, be indifferent to the many real threats, ecological and otherwise, to the world we share.

Religion may or may not be the opiate of the masses. I suppose it depends on the religion. I take my stand with William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, who observed that Christianity is “the most materialistic of all great religions.” We see this in the Incarnation. We see it in the sacraments, which transform the natural elements, the fruits of the earth, and the products of human labor—water, oil, bread, and wine—into the means of salvation. We see it in the Creed of our baptism, in which we confess our faith in the “resurrection of the body.”

So much of what passes for Christianity today has far too much in common with Gnostic escapism—with the quest for a Revealer to show us a way out of this world rather than the attempt to follow Jesus in transforming God’s creation from within. Hence the fascination with the rapture on the Right and with syncretistic New Age fantasies on the Left—each the mirror image of the other. Christianity does not concern otherworldly myths, to be enjoyed in the privacy of our homes—or locked safely away within the four walls of our churches and confined to an hour or so on Sunday morning.

Like the Lord Jesus, we stake our claim in the public square—right out in the open, where he was crucified. Christianity is lived out in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the political arena. Its influence is not confined to our churches and homes, as important as these are. Christianity is as this-worldly as our daily bread. It’s about God’s commitment to our FLESH.

Our relationship with Jesus is as personal as evangelicals keep telling us it is. Perhaps more so. It is deeply intimate. More intimate than sex. Jesus lives inside us, and we become one body, one flesh with him, in a way far more personal than our relationship with any other human being. Jesus has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Many contemporary evangelicals, under the influence of missionaries and Mennonites, and those two great Anglican priests, John and Charles Wesley (to say nothing of Jesus himself), are rediscovering the importance of embodied practices of sacrament and discipleship. At the same time, many mainline Christians, especially youth and young adults, are rediscovering our profound need for the same. We hunger and thirst for the Word of God made visible and tangible among us. We yearn to connect liturgy with discipleship—with following Jesus in the flesh. Moreover, voices from our inner cities, from abandoned rural places and postindustrial towns, and from the sweatshops, plantations, and war torn regions of our world are summoning us to a faith that seeks “not to interpret the world, but to change it.”

Faced with a world rife with suffering and injustice, a purely spiritual, private relationship with Jesus is no longer possible. In fact, it never really was. “Alternative” Christianities are at best a passing, luxurious fad for those privileged few who can still lay claim to a comfortable existence. At worst, they are a drug to numb the pain of those who no longer can do so—or who never could. The situation we face today calls us to something deeper and meatier: to a living relationship with Jesus and fresh practices of discipleship that put flesh and bones on his Gospel. Jesus is calling us to become what we eat at his table—to become his Body, broken and shared, for the life of the world.

Jesus came in the flesh. He suffered and died in the flesh. And, yes, he rose again in the flesh.

So touch him and see. Taste him and see. And follow him today.

The Rev. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

How do bodies mean?

By Donald Schell

My dad was born in 1921, delivered by C-section two months premature because his mother was dying of a brain tumor. The one time my grandmother held her newborn son she asked, ‘Is he beautiful?’ The brain tumor had already taken her sight. She died two weeks later. My grandfather, a physician grieving his twenty-six year old wife of less than a year, wrote to Gerber baby foods urgently asking what to feed his pre-term son. Somehow Dad survived and grew, though while still quite young he contracted scarlet fever, damaging a heart valve and giving him a life-long heart murmur.

‘How our bodies mean?’ is an Easter question, actually a Good Friday/Easter question. What we know of bodies, of living and of dying helps us hear resurrection proclamation.

When he was preaching Good Friday or Easter my friend and colleague Rick Fabian regularly referenced John Dominic Crossan’s claim that Jesus’ body was almost certainly taken down from the cross and thrown on the city garbage heap to be devoured by dogs. After the cruel death, Romans meant their denial of burial to shame the crucified criminal and his family.

Year by year Rick and I took turns preaching Holy Week and Easter through thirty-one years of shared pastoral leadership. Two preachers couldn’t tell the story more differently. When parishioners didn’t hear Rick draw on Crossan’s conclusions, they often heard me say that I think that the Shroud of Turin is Jesus’ burial cloth, the cloth John’s Gospel says Peter and the other disciple discovered in the empty tomb. Part of our Easter proclamation was irreconcilable stories and a mystery – one preaching from Jesus’ empty tomb and the other Jesus’ body savaged on the garbage heap. What we both preached was thanksgiving for Jesus’ living presence with us in the community that gathers to share his body and blood in bread and wine, God’s love that was stronger than death.

It’s Jesus alive and with us that makes us Christian. The ‘how’ of the mystery of resurrection matters because it points toward Jesus and also makes us talk as well as we can, as much as we understand about bodies and selves, the incarnational demand of finding words to preach Jesus’ ‘resurrection from the dead’ and the promise of our own resurrection.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective 1973 book title Our Bodies, Ourselves is closer to the ancient Christian creeds than easy talk of “our immortal souls.” We can’t go very far talking Christian faith without talking about how bodies mean and how persons are embodied. Touching another’s living flesh or even taking a breath is personal.

Here at the Episcopal Café in Holy Week Ann Fontaine posted four series of Stations of the Cross. The Salvadoran stations in that series are charcoal drawings of naked bodies, some tortured and still living, but many dead. These Stations join Christ’s fearless suffering for us to horrific memories and untold stories of the tortures and executions of El Salvador’s bitter civil war. I was glad such brutal drawings were in black and white.

The artist didn’t ask to look suffering “in the face.” Most of the bodies were drawn facing away from us, presenting us not with suffering faces, but with wounded backs and buttocks and thighs. Picturing damaged and lifeless flesh, the artist invited us to see how death squads brutalizing human bodies are really attacking personhood.

In a 2002 my son Peter worked in El Salvador for a year between university and seminary, serving as lay assistant to a recently ordained priest who had been a banker during the war. Like many Salvadorans, Peter’s mentor had family and friends on both sides of the conflict. Fr. Ramiro took us on pilgrimage to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed while saying mass. We saw his bloodstained chasuble shot-through with bullet holes. Then we drove to the memorial shrine and museum at the University of San Salvador where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter had been slain. We stood speechless before a glass case containing a relic of one of the teacher-theologians martyred that night– a copy of Moltmann’s Crucified God punctured with bullet holes and soaked with the blood.

I think I’d baptized Sara Miles about a year before our trip to El Salvador. In her book Take This Bread, A Radical Conversion. Sara describes her long evening conversations in the Jesuit residence with Ignacio Martin-Baro just six months before he was killed. Sara laughs when I use the church’s official word from baptismal instruction, “catechesis” to describe her frustrated, impassioned late-night theological and political conversations with her Jesuit friend, but his patient hearing and fearless encouragement of all her questions when she was still an atheist war correspondent did start Sara on the road to baptism.

How do bodies mean? These are all hints -
– a father’s premature birth and a grandmother’s death at twenty-six
– a young University graduate making his home in a garden shed to work with the poor in El Salvador,
– political assassinations
– martyrdom
– old blood on a ruined book
– my hand pouring water from a rock font over my friend’s head in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The naked bodies of the Salvadoran Stations were emphatically not “nudes.” A painter friend of mine says every painter must return again and again to life drawing class where the joy of drawing and painting the human figure keeps revealing how ‘all bodies are beautiful.’ Beyond carrying out execution orders, the soldiers who did the violence these Stations of the Cross portray disfigured, punctured and tore people’s bodies in the killing and after it. Witnessing to beauty destroyed, the artist shows how violence depersonalizes people’s bodies. Even in death, these bodies cry out for respect and tenderness, promising beauty’s return.

When poet-theologian Janet Morley’s imagines Mary Magdalene speaking of Good Friday her words point to something similar -

It was unfinished
We stayed there, fixed, until the end,
women waiting for the body that we loved;
and then it was unfinished.
There was no time to cherish, cleanse, anoint;
no time to handle him with love,
no farewell.
Since then, my hands have waited,
aching to touch even his deadness,
smoothe oil into bruises that no longer hurt,
offer his silent flesh my finished act of love.
(Janet Morley, All Desires Known)

Morley’s poem feels like Passion Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles this year. Watching three vested laypeople carried Jesus’ cross through the congregation, I wanted to hold and comfort my Lord Jesus so he wouldn’t be ‘naked and cold in death’ as the Orthodox Good Friday hymn laments.

Love is part of how our bodies mean. Our desire to touch tenderly is part of the ‘how’ of resurrection. Remembering Jesus, feeling the shattering death of our Friend, I thought of my dad dying in his sleep six months ago when I was 3000 miles away. Since my dad’s death, mother talks about the silence of the night and dad’s empty space in her bed.

At home drifting off to sleep after Holy Week liturgies and the Easter Vigil, I listened to Ellen’s breathing and thought of the first times we’d touched thirty-five years ago, and the many, many moments of tenderness, comfort, passion, and peace we’d shared since. Ellen’s parents died young – in their sixties. I’m sixty-two. I pray for more years. I want to know that ‘love stronger than death,’ but wanting won’t make it so. Partly because it was Holy Week, as I lay so close to her achingly beautiful warmth and smoothness, I wondered which of us would die first.

In our joyful Easter phone calls to the children, the distance was palpable. Our son the priest is a continent away from San Francisco in Washington, D.C.; his oldest sister is even further, a continent and an ocean away in Spain. Phone calls can join us mind-to-mind and soul-to-soul, but I wanted to be close enough to feel their breath, to see them in the flesh, to touch them.

This Good Friday when we joined our whole congregation touching and kissing the burial icon of Christ on the altar and mounding flowers around it, my fingers tingled with the memory of touching my dad’s face after the burial society had laid him out and ‘arranged the features’ of his face to an expression none of us had ever seen. When I touched dad’s face, that touch, my living finger touching his dead forehead, joined the body before me with the father I’d known and loved.

In 1944 my dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Did the army physician pretend not to hear his heart murmur? He passed the physical, got through flight school and got his wings, and until the war ended flew a B-17 bomber in daylight raids out from England, over the North Sea to bomb German munitions factories. He came home from the war saying he’d seen and done more than enough killing for a lifetime. The war changed his course vocationally, and he went to medical school to become a physician like my grandfather. He became a healer, touching people with hope, saving lives. In 1980, a few years younger than I am now, his heart valve was giving out and he had open-heart surgery to replace it. Then in his mid-70’s he’d worn out the replacement valve and had open-heart surgery again to put in a new one. When he died just short of his 87th birthday, my wife (a nurse like dad’s mother had been) said, ‘Your dad cheated death again and again to live an amazing long life.’ Of course she was right, but until the last year, his body always seemed as substantial and strong a presence as any living thing could be.

Love, we hear in the Song of Songs, is stronger than death, and in Easter we feel that living power in Christ who lives with and in us. Sometimes. And when we don’t he lives in our aching and hoping to feel it. Easter afternoon, basking in the sun after a glorious Easter Vigil the previous night, “Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life,” reverberating in my memory and every cell of my body, I wanted to hug my dad again.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Way, truth, life

By Greg Jones

In the 14th Chapter of John, Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life." In case you've never read John before, or perhaps been to a funeral in which this is a popular passage, you may wonder, "The way to what?" "The truth about what?" "The life of what?"

Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life ... of God.

• Jesus is the way, the road, the path, the channel given by God to God. Jesus is not the "way to heaven" but the "way to the Father." Our destiny is not to end up in a place, but to never end in a full life in God.
• Jesus is the truth of God. The truth in full. Not a partial, not a piece, not a portion ... but the full truth of God poured out in a full human life. The Word made flesh.
• Jesus is the life of God. Not just a godly life. Not just a good life. But the Life of God. The life coursing through God's being - the blood in his veins - the active principle, the verb of action and living, the essential name.

I believe these words from John 14 in concert with kenotic hymn of God's self-emptying in Philipians 2 offer the theological lenses through which the passion of Christ is best seen. (Likewise, I believe the best way to understand John 14's most familiar phrase is in light of the passion narratives and Philipians 2.)

In the passion, Jesus goes to the Cross where he will die. He could have quit. As a fully human person, Jesus could have run -- like nearly everybody else who loved him. He could have denied his vocation, but instead he went to the cross. He went there to be pinioned and pierced, mocked and murdered; to be poured out as a libation for sin, and all to be, show and give the way, truth and life of God to us. To us who need that way, truth and life which is not our way, truth and life. To us who cannot save ourselves from our small ways, small truths and small lives.

The cup of sorrow that Jesus chose to drink makes it possible for us to drink from the sweet cup of salvation. The bitter cup of vinegar, iron and wood that Jesus drinks in his passion is the only way that God's loving cup of grace may be poured out for us.

Yes, friends, the key to understanding the passion is to know that Jesus is the way, truth and life of God. And the way to understanding that Jesus is the way, truth and life of God is to know that as God's Son he poured himself out, emptied himself, drained of all power and blood, and in this paschal mystery brings us all the hope that we have.

If you believe this, then rejoice! For God in God's way, in God's truth, and in God's life has given everything for us, to save us from darkness, from shadow, and from our little ways, truths and lives which lead nowhere but the grave.

Doesn't this sound like a good deal? A truly great free-of-charge kind of deal? It is. It is good, and it's why we call this Good News the heart of our life together. Jesus poured it all out for us, and the passion story demonstrates how we can go and do likewise. The way to pour out the power of God is on a donkey - not a stallion or warhorse - but a humble donkey. The way to pour out the power of God is to live on trial before the world, in front of friends, skeptics and enemies. The way to pour out the power of God is in a true life consecrated and given to the ownership of God, so that God can pour grace through us. The way that leads to God is the way of emptying ourselves for neighbor in a God-thirsty world. The truth about God and the life of God is like unto it.

Martin Bucer, the great reformer, said that the primary focus of the Christian should not be his own salvation, but the needs of his neighbor. That's exactly what the self-emptying way, truth and life of God in Christ is all about.

Let us pour out everything we have friends, because the grace of god cannot run out.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

More rudder than anchor: dynamism and a healthy faith

By George Clifford

Recently, I attended a performance of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” featuring Topol in his original role as Tevye. “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of a small community of Russian Jews who believed they derived their identity and strength from their traditions but who must cope with persecution-driven change. The show was both great entertainment and a catalyst for some reflections about religious stasis and dynamism.

The widespread human preference for stasis in most (all?) things – self, relationships, and religion to name only three – presents an interesting paradox given that change pervades the cosmos. The universe itself is constantly changing, e.g., expanding. Most human cells have a seven-year lifespan and the rest of a body’s cells slowly die. This means that a human constantly experiences physical change (at my age, generally not for the better!). Similarly, the mind processes a never-ending flow of new experience. Consequently, the image of a flowing stream, always the same and yet never the same, is a better metaphor for human existence than is any static metaphor. Furthermore, because people are always changing, relationships are also subject to constant change.

Some people regard religion as an anchor, hoping for a source of stability in the midst of this omnipresent flux. Yet healthy religion is dynamic, more of a rudder than an anchor.

Consider briefly the historic Anglican emphasis on three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Church historian Mark Noll noted in America’s God that prior to the Civil War belief in the Bible’s support for the institution of slavery so thoroughly dominated American Christianity that Christian abolitionists necessarily relied on ethical arguments against slavery that were independent of scripture. Thanks to be God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of scripture!

The thirty-nine Articles of Religion, one of the Book of Common Prayer’s historical documents, states that pardons are “repugnant to the Word of God” (article XXII), as are speaking in tongues (article XXIV) and transubstantiation (article XXVIII). Episcopal priests pronounce absolution in God's name following public and private confession. Although I have never spoken in unknown tongues and have no desire to do so, I am pleased to be part of a Church sufficiently broad to accept charismatic expression. I find transubstantiation a quaint notion but vehemently oppose any effort to expel those who subscribe to that idea. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic tradition!

As originally understood in the Anglican tradition, reason referred to pure reason, the logical analysis of data that would lead people to reach similar conclusions. However, Christians of good conscience and intent frequently reach very different conclusions when they exegete and expound scripture. Cognitive science informs us that selective perception and emotion inherently color human thought, rendering pure reason unattainable. This explains our diversity of thought while acknowledging that reasoning – the cognitive processing of ideas and experience – is intrinsic to human functioning. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of reason!

Knowing all of this, I still find myself reluctant, at times even unwilling to change. Lenten self-examination requires me to overcome my psychic inertia, dislike of conflict, emotional preference for stasis, and other opposition to change. I know that religion that fails to change loses its ability to serve as a rudder for navigating toward God's light and life abundant. A healthy, dynamic faith frees us from dysfunctional stasis and moves us forward on the Jesus’ way, more fully experiencing the abundant life we celebrate at Easter. So I engage in the hard and often unpleasant work of self-examination and of examining my understanding of Christianity.

Where have I – and the Episcopal Church, my faith community – emulated the fictional Jews of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Where have we wrongly sought to hold on to the past, worshiping a static idol instead of the God of new beginnings? Where have we courageously trusted the living God, a dynamic, life-giving God?

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Thanksgiving in the wilderness

By Elizabeth Carpenter

It is easy to be thankful when everything is going well—our important relationships are healthy and mutually satisfying, the job is rewarding and secure, the kids are thriving, the economy is booming, nobody is sick or suffering any serious loss, the future looks rosy. But how to be thankful when things are not going so well? The company is on shaky ground and the job may disappear; the kids are going through a really rough time; the economy appears as unstable as it has been in many years; people we love are seriously ill or have died; the future is uncertain. What do we find to be thankful for under those circumstances? What can I say to those suffering, to you, about these things in your lives?

I will not offer the kind of trite encouragement intended to make one “look on the bright side” of every situation. That would be to trivialize the depth of your pain and suffering.

I will not say, “God never sends us more than we can bear,” because I think that is untrue on two accounts. First, some people do actually crack and break under the strain of their burdens; and, second, I don’t believe God “sends” everything that happens in this world. Why try to cure illness if it comes as God’s will? If God wanted people to be sick, Jesus would not have gone about healing the suffering. If everything that happened were the will of God, there would have been no need of the prophets to tell us to change our ways. Surely we don’t think that the evils which human beings have perpetrated upon one another throughout history have been administered in accordance with the will of God. Human beings have free will and often act contrary to what Jesus and the prophets tell us is the will of God.

I also think, though I cannot prove it, that there is a degree of randomness in the universe, that just as God granted free will to human beings, the universe does sometimes “do its own thing.” Or maybe we just cannot discern the level of determinism that may be operating; I don’t know. I don’t think God chooses one child to have cancer and another to be born hopelessly deformed and another to be mentally deficient. Jesus said of the man born blind, “Don’t try to figure out why this happened, but let’s see how God might be glorified in healing him now.” I will accept that admonition and not try to explain why evil exists in this world.

What can we count on? I believe that we can count on Jesus to be faithful, to be with us always, in our joy and in our sorrow. I believe we can count on the Holy Spirit to bring us the wisdom and comfort and strength we must have to get through times that truly try our souls. And I believe that God gives us into one another’s care and keeping, to help us bear one another’s burdens, to pour out our love and caring in ways that testify to the truth that we are truly members one of another. God’s love is manifest in the love we share. I am deeply thankful for the love I see operating among us and for all the gifts of God that bind our hearts to him and to one another.

The Rev. Elizabeth Carpenter is rector of St. Anne’s Church, Damascus, Md.

The power--and limits--of Christian symbols

By George Clifford

In the early 1980s, I served a tour of duty as the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico. Marine OCS differs from Army, Navy, and Air Force OCS. Unlike the other military services, the Marines do not train officers at OCS. Instead, they screen and evaluate candidates to determine whether each has the ability and potential to become a leader of Marines. Those who successfully complete OCS receive a commission as a Marine Officer and then spend the next six months at The Basic School learning to be officers.

During my tenure at OCS, roughly 50% of all candidates did not receive a commission, either dropping out at their own request or OCS dismissing them as not qualified. For these young men and women, many of whom worked for years to get to OCS, disenrollment was emotionally devastating. The rigid insistence on meeting Marine expectations combined a pervasive boot camp mentality and intense physical program to make OCS an incredibly high stress environment for most candidates.

I soon learned that Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” had great symbolic meaning for Christian candidates. The Marine Corps emblem is the eagle, globe, and anchor. By envisioning him or herself wearing that emblem, the eagle a reminder of God's promise to help, the idea of God's presence with them in the midst of a great personal struggle, unrelenting stress, and unending physical weariness acquired fresh and considerable power. (Obviously, one must avoid conflating the eagle’s two meanings; Christianity and patriotism are not the same and often have competing agendas.)

Feeling stress in 2009 is also easy to understand. Many have lost jobs and others wonder if (and when) their job may disappear. Stock portfolios have steeply declined in value, curtailing or perhaps threatening to curtail, the lifestyles of those dependent upon investment income. The credit crunch has affected the ability of many to buy or sell a house, car, or other item. Each of us could personalize this list with our stressors that might include family problems, a loved one in harm’s way, illness, etc.

Against that backdrop, one line from a recent Sunday’s gospel reading especially struck me. Those who went searching for Jesus when he sought some early morning private time told him when they found him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:37) What those who found Jesus were really saying was that people were distressed, like the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, and these people wanted God's help. They had seen or heard of Jesus mediating that help to others – this is what the stories of healing are all about – and now they wanted, needed, God's help for themselves.

Unfortunately, no amount of searching can bring us face to face with the historical Jesus. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has a rich panoply of symbols through which people can still experience God's life-transforming love.

Historically, many Christians have found the bread and wine of Holy Communion powerful mediators of God's grace. This common experience of grace explains why the Church early in its life literalized its interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution, “This is my body … this is my blood.” Transubstantiation, pursuit of the Holy Grail, prayer before the consecrated host, and a wealth of other traditions all grew out of the reverence that Christians attached to symbols through which many experienced God's presence and grace so powerfully mediated. The Church hoped that literalizing the symbols would preserve the symbols’ power and help expand the number of those for whom the symbol mediated God's grace.

Similarly, with the advent of printing and widespread availability of Bibles, many other Christians discovered that the printed words of scripture symbolically mediated God's life-transforming love in an equally powerful manner. They too literalized their experience in an effort to promote its power and to prevent sacrilege. The words of scripture became words that God had spoken. One never set the Bible on the floor or placed another book on top of it. Bequeathing one’s Bible to a member of the next generation conveyed a sense of continuing spirituality between generations.

The saddest example of church architecture I have ever seen is the Dunker Church situated on the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland. My visit to that Church building has remained vivid for over thirty years. What saddened me was neither the damage from cannonballs nor inadvertently poor choice of location. What saddened me was that the church, structurally and in terms of its décor, was distinguishable from some mid-eighteenth century schoolhouses that had benches instead of desks only by the absence of a chalkboard.

Dunker opposition to symbolic expressions of the faith, apart from one book, the Bible, lies at one extreme of the spectrum of Christian reliance on symbols. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, with their unapologetic reliance on multiple symbols – gilded icons, incense, chant, and elaborate, highly stylized ritual – occupy the other extreme of the spectrum of Christian expression.

The Episcopal Church falls broadly between those two extremes: low-church Episcopalians toward the Dunkers and high-church Episcopalians toward the Eastern Orthodox. No one set of practices is normative for us; individuals and congregations gravitate in directions that they find helpful. Yet Episcopalians unite around two truths. Symbols can mediate God's presence and love. But the symbol is only a means for receiving God's grace; identifying the symbol with grace results in idolatry that destroys the symbol’s ability to convey God's grace.

Symbols that fill our Church and spiritual lives include:
• Water in Holy Baptism, fonts at church entrances, and ablutions;
• The taste of bread and wine in Holy Communion;
• Oil used in anointing;
• Metaphors and images incarnated in word, music, paint, fabric, and stone;
• The smell of incense and evergreens;
• Touch in the laying on of hands in prayer and ordination, and physical contact – hugs, shaking hands – when we exchange peace;
• Changes in posture, as we stand, kneel, sit, bow, genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

Which symbol or symbols resonate most deeply with you at this point in your life? If, like the people in Mark’s gospel, you search for God's powerful presence, then live into the symbols that resonate most deeply with you. When we think on meaningful symbols, incorporate them into life in appropriate ways, and explore their mysteries, then we, like the Jews to whom Isaiah spoke, Jesus’ contemporaries, and the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, can experience anew God's loving, life giving presence.

Thoughts on Christian marriage, II

This is the second part of a two-part essay on Christian understandings of marriage.

By George Clifford

The next step in that unfolding narrative of grace is to expand the concept of marriage to include a gay man marrying a gay man or a lesbian marrying a lesbian. This timely, grace filled step rightly extends the Christian concept of marriage to people whom the Church for too long has marginalized or demonized, the very categories of people with whom Jesus spent his ministry. The Church wrongly has attempted to foist a life and love denying form of sexuality – heterosexuality – upon people whom God created with a different gender orientation. Consequently, their gender preference has too often caused gays and lesbians to deny their very identity or to express their sexuality in promiscuous, exploitative, or other destructive ways. Same-sex monogamous marriage inherently promotes healthy lifestyles, models the union of Christ and the Church, and can powerfully mediate grace to all whom they encounter.

Conversely, contending that such marriages pose a threat to heterosexual marriage is as silly an evangelical shibboleth as pretending that Christian teachings about marriage have remained constant. Any married heterosexual who fancies him or herself threatened by gay or lesbian marriages has a delusional concept of her or his own attractiveness as a partner, perceives his or her marriage is in trouble, or fears his or her own severely repressed homosexuality.

The time for silence ended years ago; now is the time for action. At General Convention this summer, the Episcopal Church should initiate appropriate legislation to:


(1) Disentangle the Episcopal Church from the state with respect to marriage by canonically prohibiting Episcopal clergy from acting on behalf of the state in performing marriages (regardless of what civil law may allow), deleting all canonical provisions governing such acts, and deleting the existing rite for the “Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the Book of Common Prayer;
(2) Create one rite for blessing all monogamous relationships, regardless of the gender of the two parties (a revised, gender neutral, and enriched version of the current Book of Common Prayer rite for “The Blessing of a Civil Marriage” could serve as the basis for this new rite for blessing marriages);
(3) Prophetically encourage all government entities (states, territories, etc.) with jurisdiction to define marriage as the legal union of two consenting adults regardless of gender.

The legal benefits of marriage are real and substantial. Two people who choose to live as one understandably want to share fully obligations to care for one another, responsibility for any children, property ownership, etc. Laws governing health care, child guardianship, inheritance, and a host of other issues stipulate preferential treatment of and protections for a spouse. Item #3 above is critical because those laws should apply to all marriages, regardless of the gender of the persons involved. By prophetically advocating equal rights for all, regardless of gender orientation, the Church walks faithfully in the footsteps of the Biblical prophets, echoing their call for justice.

The lingering entanglement of religion and state with respect to marriage is an unfortunate legacy of various United States denominations having emerged from (or continuing to be part of) established European Churches. God's grace cannot and does not wait for governments to act. By ending the misguided entanglement of the Episcopal Church and state in which clergy act as agents of the state when officiating at marriages (Item #1 above), the Church moves in time with God's grace, treating all monogamous relationships equally, using the same liturgical rite to pronounce God's blessing (Item #2).

For political rather than theological reasons, reasons that I, an ardent supporter of democracy, nonetheless find compelling, France over a century ago took away the authority of religious leaders to officiate at the legal ceremony in which the government approves of a marriage contract. After that civil ceremony, those for whom the religious ceremony holds meaning seek God's blessing in a manner appropriate to their faith tradition.

Separation of the civil from the legal is also good theology. Most clergy have officiated at marriages in which tradition, architectural beauty, location, humoring parents, or other extraneous factors motivated the couple to have a “Church wedding.” Any belief or even hope by bride or groom that God could or would bless their union was absent. Some beguilingly naïve couples, at least in unguarded moments, unsuspectingly divulge their real motives even while trying to pay lip service to their non-existent faith. Performing a wedding of this genre is rarely effective outreach. Instead, such weddings commercialize the Church (i.e., provide helpful income to some parishes), demean Christian believers, cause non-believers verbally to prostitute themselves, and distract from the real work of ministry. Those who too easily dismiss these objections would do well to reflect on the uniquely American phenomena of “mail order” clergy performing weddings, Vegas wedding chapels, contemporary wedding trends, and wedding extravaganzas that display conspicuous consumption. People will hear the Church’s proclamation of the gospel against that cacophonous background only if the proclamation is clear and unambiguous.

Admittedly, General Convention implementing the three recommendations above will have some unintended ramifications. Dissidents who have exited the Episcopal Church will feel their departures justified. On a positive note, given the experience of other American ecclesial bodies in taking similar steps, notably the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church can expect that few additional dissidents will depart.

Other provinces will bewail the Episcopal Church acting unilaterally, without first developing a consensus among members of the Anglican Communion. Completing the liturgical changes will require at least one additional triennial meeting of General Convention. Thus, any action General Convention takes implicitly, and even better explicitly, invites the rest of the Anglican Communion to enter into dialogue on subject of marriage. This topic, for very diverse reasons raises important questions not only in the United States, but also in Canada (same sex relationships), the United Kingdom (remarriage after divorce and same sex relationships), and Africa (polygamy). Provinces that have already separated themselves, de facto, from the Communion will predictably refuse to participate; recent moves by and messages from those provinces express their opinion that the Episcopal Church has already abandoned the faith. Confirming those provinces in their negative opinion will not cause any additional harm. The rest of the Communion, holding firmly to Anglican inclusivity and diversity, can profit from timely conversations about marriage from cultural, legal, and theological perspectives.

General Convention’s approval of the three initiatives will set the Episcopal Church firmly on a course of incarnating God's love for all in a radically inclusive manner that emulates the one whom it calls Lord. These initiatives are the faithful and logical next step in the unfolding narrative of God's grace. No alternative course will achieve the same result. This is the intended outcome, the one to which God has called us: to stand with God, in God's name, for all of God's people.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Thoughts on Christian marriage, I

Over the next four days, the Daily Episcopalian will feature a two-part essay by the Rev. George Clifford on the history of Christian understandings of marriage. Part two will appear on Sunday/Monday.

By George Clifford

In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy. Yet the Biblical basis for confidently declaring that marriage is uniquely between one man and one woman seems somewhat tenuous at best. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals multiple acceptable patterns for marriage: polygamy, concubinage, Levirate, etc. The status of those teachings today is unclear. For example, Scripture nowhere teaches that the practice of Levirate marriage – a widow marrying a brother of her deceased husband in order to keep the husband’s property in the family – is obsolete.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the dominant cultural pattern for marriage among Jews was clearly that of one man married to one woman. However, nothing in Jesus’ teachings excludes other patterns, e.g., he never explicitly teaches that a person shall have only one spouse at any given time. Only when read with a presumption of monogamy do gospel passages appear to teach monogamy. For example, Mark 10:12 records Jesus teaching that if a woman divorces her husband she commits adultery. Read with the presumption of polygamy, the passage neither implicitly nor explicitly forbids the husband from having multiple wives.

Similarly, the NRSV translates 1 Timothy 3:2 as “married only once” instead of the more traditional “husband of one wife.” Yet both versions arguably presume that many people marry more than once; neither translation actually precludes the possibility that some Christians then practiced polygamy.

Only in the Pauline writings is the case for heterosexual monogamy stated directly (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2). Even then, the teaching’s applicability may be problematic. Why elevate the authority of the Pauline corpus above that of the rest of Scripture? Perhaps culture rather than God shaped Paul’s thoughts about marriage as happened with his thoughts about slavery and women.

From a theological perspective, the Christian Church followed Paul, prevailing cultural mores, or both, and from its early centuries taught that the sacrament of marriage was the indissoluble union of one man and one woman. Then the Church began to modify that narrow approach – thankfully!

First, the Church recognized that in some instances a purported marriage was just that, only a facsimile and not the substance of a marriage. Reasons the Church might declare a marriage invalid included the legal encumbrance of one party preventing him or her from being legally free to marry (perhaps because he/she was already married) or one party not intending a faithful marriage. The Roman Catholic Church’s annulment process still operates on this basis, emotionally scarring many. Senator Ted Kennedy’s first wife, Joan, notoriously refused to cooperate with her husband when he sought to have their marriage annulled. She contended that their progeny constituted living proof of a valid marriage; additionally, she argued, annulment would tacitly declare their children illegitimate.

Second, the Church improved its theology, shifting from supporting arranged marriages and considering women as chattel to promoting marriages based on mutual, consensual love and viewing women as equal partners with men. The Book of Common Prayer’s option for the Officiant at a marriage to inquire, “Who gives this woman to this man?” is an anachronistic, liturgical residue of the erroneous notion that women are property.

Third, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Christian Church recognized that imperfect humans make imperfect choices with respect to marriage partners and sometimes destroy reasonably good marriages. In other words, the Church finally discerned that grace abounds more if marriages that have died or become destructive end in divorce with the possibility of healing and remarriage rather than legalistically condemning the parties in such marriages to remain in hellish bondage or celibate. Sadly, the Church of England is among the limited number of ecclesiastical bodies retaining a more legalistic rather than grace-filled understanding of marriage and divorce. The Episcopal Church seeks a healthy middle ground between casual, serial monogamy and legalism with our process focused on healing those whose marriage has ended as an integral element of preparing for remarriage.

Let me be clear. I am an unabashed and wholehearted proponent of faithful monogamy. My brief review of marital practices described in the Bible and our evolving theological understanding of marriage simply emphasizes that concepts of Christian marriage have not remained static over the millennia. The history of Christian marriage is an unfolding narrative of increasing grace, albeit a history of slow and uneven progress.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Adult formation: kernel and kerygma

By Adrian Worsfold

For some months now I have been presenting papers to a church In Depth group (at St. Mary's, Barton-upon-Humber) that would make up a theology course when complete.

The 'course' has a particular narrative to it, with a predominance of German and American theologians. It starts with the nineteenth century theologians who at a time of the rise of new academic specialities realised the severe limitations put on to theology by such approaches of historical methods, sociology, philosophy etc.. Gospel accounts were relativised, and the historical Jesus was open to question. Schleiermacher is the grandfather, Ritschl the father, and Troeltsch and von Harnack the sons of the open liberal theological approach that wanted consistency with other academic disciplines. They were also this-worldly optimists.

The First World War blew the optimism away and in the first half of the twentieth century modern theologians had closed and protected theology-first christologies with resistances to Nazism and romanticism, and then approaches to the secular.

It was while presenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that I realised the difference between kernel and kerygma. The liberals were seeking the kernel of Christianity, that simple essence that could be realised by stripping away the clutter of the religion. Bonhoeffer, however, in his dealings with the busy, secular, practical world believed that there was a gospel encounter happening in and amongst the secular world - a kerygma. This is rather a different approach from Tillich, who thought people still asked existential questions for which Christianity gave correlated answers - yet that systematic approach still acted as a preserved kerygma of a sort. Kerygma means a complete gospel in action centred on the person of Jesus Christ, his life and mission. Next time I shall present on Reinhold Niebuhr and apply his economic and social theology to the current credit crunch, and again he had a kerygma, preserved around corporate sin and realised in a necessary pragmatism with the further ethical ideal in the gospel, whereas his predecessor Walter Rauschenbusch had a kernel of the building of the Kingdom of God into society.

The narrative goes on to say that these modern theologians, who were intent on preserving christology, provided the background and were reused in notable Anglican controversies, where the accusation has been that of liberalism and undermining belief. Yet they were not liberals as such.

For what it is worth, my view is that the essence of Christianity ought to be consistent with the methods of other disciplines, and that the various kerygma approaches are special pleading. Neverthless it says something about the regression of organised religion that those intent on preserving Christian specifics became accused of feeding liberalism. I note that many evangelicals today even criticise Karl Barth as inadequate as they march down the road into selective literalism.

Then my presentations will look at current trends and theologies, including conserving and liberal postmodern forms: the wide range of theologies that show a gulf between the university and the churches.

So my intention is to introduce, at least, some of these often unknown theologies at church level.

The group has already established its own open atmosphere. My approach is also that the group speaks freely on this material and around it, including space for doubt and scepticism, and that there is no confessional basis to any of this. If the group deviates from the presentation, that's fine. It is a means to critical discussion about the faith. Also the group may decide it's had enough, and I'm happy when others want to present instead (as they did before I started).

In all this is another model of where liberation theology meets radical education, that I do intend to present, and it derives most obviously from Paulo Freire (1921-1997). This is the idea that local communities use education as a means of building themselves up: the education is where the group uses its own experiences. We have people in this group with a background in Eastern and Western religion, with theological training, with commitment to intelligent gospel preaching, a background in history and professional social work (where human spiritual concerns arise), and attachments to progressive Christianity like that of Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar. My own background is sociological and theological. The group is a corner of a town church that has members that span the range of Christian expressions.

So much education these days now is based on acquiring credits: if there is no certification, there is no course. So much that is called education is little other than uncritical economic training. It is the very opposite of what Paulo Freire represented, as such training says you are nothing unless you have a job, and you have to fit into the status quo. Work sets you free, rather than being a human is to become free.

What this group represents, for me, is an approach that says we are actual voluntary and communal education, built up from own experience, beliefs and discussion, and we do it for no more than its own sake, and we do it with material that deals with a different set of values than those of the State and the economy. It's very small, it's not much, but it is a small candle to what education should be about in its purest and most liberating form.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

The history rant

By Derek Olsen

Whenever I teach a class, whether it’s at a seminary or in a church, I typically begin with a bit about how the past and the present play into one another in the construction of theological meaning. I’ve done it enough that it’s achieved a fairly fixed form and as I look over lecture notes for things I’ve taught it’s not uncommon to see a line near the top reading “insert history rant here”.

Because—well—that’s probably the best way to describe it: “the history rant” …and here’s a version of it…

We are not called to be part of the Christian Historical Society. We are called to be part of the Christian Church. We don’t do things because they’re old; we do them because they proclaim the Gospel.

Now, the Gospel—the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—does not change. It is the same yesterday, today, and forever. How we communicate this Good News, however, must be constantly renewed. Because while the Good News of Jesus does not change, cultures and the people who live in them change constantly. In order for people to actually hear the Gospel, we have to be sure that what we’re saying is communicating that Good News. Because we’re limited, fallible, sinful people our proclamations will inevitable distort the Gospel. That is, we will inevitably accent some parts and tone down other parts and over time any static means of proclaiming the Gospel will end up proclaiming a Gospel-like substance that is not, in fact, the real thing.

Generally by this point, I’ll be able to pick up some readings from the group I’m working with. Some of the progressive-types will likely be smiling and nodding; some of the traditional-types will be watching me warily to see where I’m going with all of this. And so I continue…:

So—because we’re humans we will inevitably screw this thing up. Thankfully, God’s well aware of this and to that end, we’ve got the Holy Spirit to help keep us on track. Now—this is where it gets complicated.

The great Protestant disease is amnesia. Some even act like we’re the first Christians on the face of the earth and try and make everything up from scratch. If we take the Scriptures seriously, if we take the Creeds seriously, then we as Christians must believe that the Spirit has been continually at work guiding and directing from the time of the patriarchs, through the time of Jesus, through the times of the Church. The Spirit didn’t somehow go away at the end of the Book of Acts and show up again just for you. For Christians, history can never be “one damn thing after another”—instead it’s a storehouse of the footprints of the Spirit: how it has led and directed us, and how we’ve listened (or not). So when we start renewing our proclamation of the Gospel the surest and best place to start is looking back to see how the Spirit has spoken, how we have responded and what means were used then that can help us speak the word of life now. We must be grounded in our Tradition—not so we can simply replicate it, but so that we can draw on it the best we’re able.

By this point I often see a flip-flop. The progressive-types are looking wary and the traditionalist-types are looking pleased…meaning it’s time to shake things up again.

By the way, I’ve discovered that the way most people in the Church define “Tradition” is: “the way things were done when I was a kid.” Let me warn you that the tradition is far broader, deeper, and more complicated than that.

At this point most everybody is looking a bit wary—which is the way I like it. And so I wrap it up:

We are the Church—and we have to address the situations, cultures and people we find here and now—not those from a hundred or five hundred years ago. We’re not the Christian Historical Society—but history is where we find time-tested methods that will help us proclaim the Gospel here and now. The key to the process, though, is neither to start making things up off the top of our heads nor to go for the books with the most dust on them—it’s to listen to the Spirit. That’s the whole point of this exercise after all: to listen and discern so that we can truly communicate the Good News.

I do this “history rant” for a number of different reasons. One reason really is to shake people up and to get them to think beyond the simplistic dichotomies where we often find one another. It’s also to dig into the purpose of why we talk about these things; history for history’s sake is a valid endeavor—it’s just not why the Church does it. We have to be listening for the voice of the Spirit, investigating when and where we listened, or refused to listen.

It’s also a reminder for me personally not to give into my temptation to park myself in the tenth century…

Despite the traps we church people fall into, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what pigeon-hole we fit ourselves into. What matters is that we realize that we are caught up in an endeavor much greater and grander than our own projects--that we have the opportunity to be part of the great communication between God and humanity, to speak and spread the word of life, liberation, and redemption that we have received in Jesus. And to do that best, I believe, means locating ourselves within that conversation. Knowing what has been said and done in the past, and keeping our heart and eyes attentive to what God is saying and doing now.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Traditions ripe for revival

By Martin Smith

A surprise parcel arrived. A friend had been clearing out drawers and had found a stole I had woven years ago. Would I like to have this memento from the old days? Just smelling the wool brought about a flashback from that time when I was a new immigrant to the States. I’d taken a retreat day in a cabin in the woods, and as night came I found myself utterly awake. A strange feeling came upon me that I must get up again and make up the fire to wait for a visitation—but for what? I found myself pushing the furniture against the walls to clear the floor. And then something strange happened to me. I started to dance, and the dancing took on a life of its own. Or rather, it was my life that was being danced. I realized as the hours wore on that my entire life-story was dancing itself out. It must have been well into the small hours of the morning before I caught up with the present. By the glow of the now sunken fire, I sank exhausted onto the bed and slept the deepest sleep.

It was something of a revelation. A physically awkward intellectual, my experience of dancing was restricted to rare tortuous efforts which ballroom dancing classes at school had only taught me to dread. But apparently my body knew my life story better than my head, and it had to find a way to express itself through dancing.

Since then, I have had a strong sense that movement is more of a royal road to awareness and spiritual transformation than we imagine. I had struck the bedrock of human religious experience. Human beings danced themselves into spiritual awareness long before language emerged. Ritual is primal. Doctrine is a latecomer. I wonder whether as the implications of post-modernity gradually sink in we might realize just how alienated we are from our bodies in the religiosity our very recent ancestors invented. In the modern mutation of Christianity we assume that we think and argue ourselves into change. This Christianity stuck in its head is the one that called down the indictment summed up in the phrase that echoes in the Marabar caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India—“Poor talkative Christianity!”

I wonder whether I’ll live to see a really widespread renewal of true ritual movement, in which ordinary Christians discover freedom from the constraints imposed by the wooden cages we call pews. Two of the most primal avenues for creating transformative communities that celebrate the Great Mystery we call God are chanting and ritual movement, and scientists are now discovering the actual neurological mechanisms that explain why both open human beings up to enlarged experience. There are signs that chant is re-emerging, not least due to the widespread influence of the Taize community. And there are pioneering efforts here and there for restoring sacred dance and movement to the whole body of worshippers, such as the fascinating experiments of St Gregory Nyssen Church in San Francisco.

One of the challenges of post-modern spirituality is losing our fear of ancient traditions that are ripe for revival because they embody innate wisdoms that modernity repressed. Sometimes the chances of revival seem far fetched. I remember taking part in 1974 in a very profound retreat based on the Labyrinth. What a rare topic it seemed, and how skeptically we would have greeted any prediction that by 2008, this ritual of meditative movement would have sprung back into life all over the world!

I’ve used a processional dance in worship based on one that has survived in the pilgrimage church in Echternach, Germany. The dance involves taking five steps forward and then three steps back. It’s pointless to explain to people ahead of time the transforming insight that can only emerge from personal experiment. But the congregations’ puzzled, rueful and then delightful smiles eloquently expressed the felt sense that such a dance tells certain truths about our exploration into God and our life stories that the linear progress of regular church processions can’t. Life involves setback after setback, they belong to the sacred rhythm!

Perhaps sometime in the future the church will challenge the disembodied virtual world into which millions are losing themselves with a new sacramental physicality that welcomes people to be more emotionally available to one another and to God in the direct flesh and blood, face to face, arm in arm experience of community. I hope to see a new wave of delight in the gospel of Incarnation to wash away tired doubt. Dance and movement are sure to be at the heart of renewed practices of community. Dear God, we celebrate at Christmas that the Word was made flesh, and we have spent so much effort resisting the mystery by turning holy flesh back into words.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Ascetical Theology 101

By Derek Olsen

Introduction

A little bit ago The Lead pointed to a great speech given by a Roman Catholic Benedictine abbot on climate change and sustainability. To summarize, he championed a return to the roots of our moral theology. The only way to combat the environmental woes that assail us, he insists, is to return to the practice of the virtues that Christianity has always promoted.

Say what?

What virtues would those be—and what have we “always” said about them? What the heck is this “moral theology” thing anyway, and is it something that we Anglican types do too?

Moral theology is indeed an important part of the Anglican way, but we haven’t always called it that—nor communicated it clearly. So, in case you were out that day in catechism class (or skipped catechism class altogether) here’s a quick refresher on moral theology—what it isn’t, what it is, and how we do it…

There Are Several Kinds of Theology

Most of us know about theology. It’s usually complicated and boring. Not only is it complicated and boring but all too often it’s speculative too. That is, you can spend your whole life doing it and have no idea if you’re even in the ballpark or not. And that’s no fun.

Let me challenge this notion a bit with the notion that there are different fields within the over-all category of “theology”—and that the category as a whole does get a bad rap. Three fields that I want to focus on are systematic theology, moral theology, and ascetical theology.

Most of the time when people think (nasty thoughts) about theology, they’re thinking of systematic theology. This is the discipline that, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “investigate[s] the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith and to promote its deeper understanding.” Or, as I call it, thinking about Christian thoughts. This is the field that explores the Christian doctrine of God, tries to wrap its head around the notion of the Trinity, and deals with the theoretical links between God and creation—especially us humans. It can indeed get very complicated and very speculative. While I confess to finding parts of it boring, thankfully others don’t—because it does have an important role in our faith.

If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God—which I believe it is—then systematic theology asks: what are the contours of that relationship and who and what are we in relationship with?

Systematic theology is about the thoughts we think and how they ground our relationships with God.

Moral theology, on the other hand, while it interacts with some of the concepts used in systematic theology has a very different starting place and ending place. Moral theology focuses on human action—why we do what we do and the theological logic that grounds it. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then moral theology asks: in light of that relationship, what actions should humans do or not do? In some times and places, moral theology has taken a turn towards legalism—prescribing what we ought and oughtn’t do—and many Christians including Anglicans have often shied away from these developments and have tended more towards the roots of moral theology which are found in ascetical theology. Ascetical theology and moral theology share quite a bit of common ground and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably—but I think it’s worth teasing out a difference in order to see ascetical theology more clearly.

It’s actually this latter field of theology that Anglicans have typically embraced. Its roots are in the monastic theology that grounds our liturgies and prayer books. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then ascetical theology asks: what habits can we cultivate to nurture that relationship?

So while thoughts are involved, ascetical theology isn’t fundamentally about thinking and while deeds are involved it’s not fundamentally about specific acts either—it’s about our habits: how we think, how we feel, and ultimately how we behave towards all of the players in the relationship—God and our neighbors (which includes the whole of creation…).

Because it’s about habits it tends to be less speculative than systematic theology; because it’s about habits it tends to be less legalistic than moral theology. The flip side, though, is that it requires not just thought or isolated actions but real transformation of our habits and that makes it much more challenging and more personally risky.

Ascetical Theology Starts with Sin

Christian ascetical theology really does begin with Jesus and Paul but was expanded upon, systematized, and field-tested in the harsh laboratory of the Egyptian desert. The early monastic movement took quite seriously the notion of embodying the demands of Scripture and worked hard at the practical science of Christian perfection—in so far as that’s possible. The basis of ascetical theology, then, comes from these monastic roots particularly as systematized by John Cassian and others.

The monastic teachers inevitably started with sin. That is, if we go back to our definition of ascetical theology—what habits nurture the relationship with God and neighbor—the monastics found that it was much easier to identify the negatives—those habits that prevent us from nurturing a mature relationship with God and neighbor. Assisted by good things that they learned from Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy (after all, we Christians didn’t invent the notion of healthy relationships…), the monastics found that the great majority of the countless ways that we injure ourselves and each other can be classified under eight broad headings which they called the principal vices:

• Gluttony
• Lust
• Covetousness
• Anger (used as a technical term for an attitude—not a feeling)
• Sorrow (ditto)
• Acedia (an anxiety or weariness of the heart)
• Vainglory
• Pride

(Another way of grouping them is the Seven Deadly Sins which bundles Sorrow and Acedia together into “Sloth”)

Remember, these are broad headings that describe the ways that we distort our relationships. Just because “Lust” makes the list doesn’t mean that these can be rejected with a dismissory, “Oh, he thinks sex is bad—we’ve moved beyond that now…” Rather we need to recognize that the ways that we use and express our sexuality can and do damage relationships—just as how we consume can, or how we think about and act towards other people can.

We’ve All Got a Favorite

All of us participate in all of these vices to one degree or another. And, many of these tend to interconnect with one another. However, the monastics discovered that most people tend to favor one or two of these more than the others. You have to deal with them all sooner or later, but you’ve got to tackle the big ones first—and “the big ones” are different for each one of us. I’d suggest—returning to the abbot’s speech that touched this whole thing off—that societies are no different. While we can think of a whole host of ways that Western society enacts each these eight vices, I’d suggest that the one that is presently most lethal is gluttony.

The Western way of life is consuming ourselves to death—and we’re taking the rest of the world with us, too.

But There’s a Fix

Thankfully the monastic experimenters didn’t just identify and classify problems, they worked on solutions too. After identifying the habits that get us into trouble, they studied those habits that can counteract these destructive tendencies. These are the principle virtues:

• Temperance
• Chastity
• Prudence
• Justice
• Fortitude
• Faith
• Hope
• Love

Just as the vices are interrelated and are broad categories for a host of acts, the same is true of the virtues. The monastics taught that to grow in one virtue was to grow in all of them since all of them point to and are wrapped up in love. Love is the sum of the virtues.

Sometimes specific virtues can be used to counter certain vices. For instance, temperance can directly oppose gluttony—but this rarely succeeds if we attempt the virtue by itself. Love is the sum of the virtues, and if we find that we are enacting one of the virtues in a way that doesn’t exhibit the others and that doesn’t ultimately lead us into love, chances are we’ve figured out another way to call vice virtue! Temperance without justice, without hope, without love, may not be temperance at all but repression masquerading as virtue.

We need to cultivate temperance on a societal level, but to do it without justice, hope, and love would be to make our problems simply different and not better.

We’re Not Alone Either

By this time the little Lutheran who lives in my brain is jumping up and down, waving his hands wildly, shouting “What about grace! Isn’t this just works-righteousness by another name!”

Thankfully, no—it’s not. The monastics insisted that no part of this process of transformation can occur apart from God and apart from God’s grace. After all, this isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about relationship-improvement and the One to whom we relate wants this to work out even more than we do. God’s grace begins, assists, and completes the process, but there’s still a role for us to play too. In one memorable part of John Cassian’s writings a student asks that if God begins and ends it, what’s left for us to do? The older monk gently corrects him with the wry remark that things with beginning and ends have middles too—and that’s where we come in. God offers us grace but we have to recognize and accept it too. God constantly offers us ways to improve our relationships with him, with our neighbors, with the whole creation—but we’ve got to take him up on it.

We’re not saved by cultivating virtue, by forming holy habits. We’re saved by God’s free gift of grace. But God invites us to improve the relationship, not to just let it lie. That’s the point of ascetical theology—to help us form the holy habits that make the relationship deeper, stronger, and more dear.

Holy habits are the habits that build love, that build compassion, that build respect. And those are the qualities that we need as individuals and as societies if we expect to make a difference in our world. Climate change, sustainability—those are just pieces of a much larger mess that we’ve all participated in creating. Just as the Abbot of Worth suggests, maybe these habits are what we have to offer the world.

So ascetical theology really is an Anglican thing to do. It may even be an American thing to do… But deeper than that, it’s the Christian thing to do—to respond to the grace that God freely offers. To take our relationships with both hands and to do the hard work of embracing holy habits.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

What does God want?

By Greg Jones

What does God want? I mean really - what's God looking for in people? What's he want from us?

The Bible says - the prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints say - Jesus says - and we say it every Sunday - that what God wants is us. Starting with nothing, God made us for himself. Yes, God wants us.

When we turned away - and became subject to evil and death - God sent us gracious voices to show us the way back home. Yes, God wants us.

When we seized His place in our lives - claiming His center for ourself - He came right on into that anthropocentric world we'd made as One of us - and said, "See I am lord here too, come, follow, enter my kingdom." Yes, in Grace, God built us, built us a household, and all because he wants us.

To be with Him, to Love Him, to become more and more in an eternal companionship. Yes, God wants us to come home - to belong - to have significance in His house. That's what Leviticus is talking about where it says, 'Be holy for I am God, I am holy." It means, "I made you, be with me, for you are my beloved."

It's what Jesus repeats in the summary of the Law in today's Gospel - the message of total love: of God, neighbor and self. And it's what Jesus alludes to by describing a messiah not merely the kingly son of David, but a messiah who is from, with, and IN, the Holy One of All.

God wants in, my friends, with us, for us, and between us. But do we? The answer is probably, "Sort of?" "Sometimes?" "Maybe?" God wants to love, honor and cherish us, but we're not so sure we'll return it. To Him, or any other, perhaps even to that 'inner other' of the potential human self.

Yes, with all that He is and all that He has, Christ honors us: but we've got cold feet.

But, you know, our feet might be cold, but we who attend the weekly feast of thanksgiving, who have gone to the chapel, and who are at the altar with Christ, and that counts for something. We go to be with our savior, and thankfully, shaky as we are: He's not shaky at all. The Good News is that our bridegroom, Christ, has enough love to make up for what little we bring to this marriage of humanity and divinity known as the
Church.

Yes, we're here, in the Church, not only before God's altar, but in God's house, and our bridegroom has brought us home, and we belong here, and have significance here, because with His great, "I am," and our feeble "I will with God's help," we have become one in Him and He in us.

We're his. Emmanuel, which means God with us, has joined us to God and each other. Alleluia.

But let me say, though we go weekly in celebration of this sacred communion relationship, God is not looking for wedding presents. No, God's not looking for our gifts - because God gave them to us in the first place, and God knows where they are right now.

God's not looking for our gifts, God's looking for our promise, love and commitment. God's not looking us to give Him anything, God's looking for us to use what He's given us for the good of the Kingdom He's trying to build with us.

Friends, God has already paid blood for your soul in Christ. Christ is looking now for your promise to join with Him, in promise, in commitment, and to build up His household.

Those who share the love and gifts God has given, can do mighty acts in times of trouble. That time is always now, and this sacred household and our divine partner want us to be fully involved - right here at home.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is due on iTunes this month. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Communicating the reality of divine Motherhood

By Martin L. Smith

I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing remarks an elderly couple were making as they wandered round the collection of Old Masters in the Atlanta art gallery. I particularly remember the husband’s brief comment, almost a growl it sounded so hurt: “So many pictures of her…”

We all know who he was referring to—Mary, the subject to which Christian art endlessly returns. Probably an evangelical brought up to suspect all visual representations of the sacred and to rely on words, words with a masculine ring to them, he could only respond with some bafflement and resentment. Why her face?

Perhaps it isn’t too early to prepare for Christmas by considering why Mary’s face is so central to the visual world of Christianity. Helen of Troy’s face only launched a thousand ships. Mary’s face is found in thousands of art galleries, tens of thousands of churches and millions of homes. However secularized the so called ‘Holidays’ are becoming, the mail that will soon be pouring into mailboxes will certainly contain some cards showing her gazing out at us, or returning the smile of her baby son. Let’s prepare to receive them with fresh insight.

We need to revisit in our imaginations the early months of a baby’s growth. For the first three months babies explore the world through their mouths. They lick and suck and stick things into their mouths. Then at three months there is an amazing shift. Babies start orientating themselves towards a person present. They seek and learn to respond to the presence of a human face. And they smile. They’ll even smile back at a balloon with a face sketched on it. The smile is born in the presence of the Face experienced as loving presence. This is what we mean by primal human experience, so utterly human and basic that it is foundational for all that comes next, something we never leave behind. And it is surely the experience in which all religious experience is rooted. In seeking God, we are seeking the Face turned towards us in love, and it was our mother’s gaze that first evoked the smile we want to give back to our Creator. The primal language of our religion recalls this gazing and smiling. In ancient Israel, worship itself was referred to as seeing God’s face. “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” (Ps. 27) “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80)

There are so many pictures of her—Mary, the mother of Jesus—because her face represents everything about God’s love that the face of an old Man isn’t as good at conveying. God can let wisdom shine through the face of motherly tenderness, and nurture the reality of divine Motherhood that masculine imagery is less effective at communicating. If much of our verbal imagery about the divine draws on our experience of powerful males, how appropriate that we should cherish visual imagery that complements and corrects it by conveying divine power in feminine terms. Luke’s gospel itself represents Mary as recognizing the power of her motherhood and pointing to the tremendous resonance it was going to have in the hearts of God’s faithful. “All generations will call me blessed.”

Now the world of spirituality has a very healthy awareness of our tendency to live in our heads, and this isn’t a topic for argument, but for experiment. How in practice do we react to the contemplation of icons and religious artworks that represent Mary? Have you ever allowed yourself to be touched, moved, addressed at a gut level in quiet exposure to Mary’s loving gaze? If you have been put off by bad, conventional statuary and trashy cards, have you gotten over it and given attention to truly beautiful examples?

There are many Episcopalians who have never prayed with an icon of Mary, or ever cherished or meditated on her face. Many might dismiss it out of hand as a deviation into Roman Catholic practices. But that might be a matter of spiritual avoidance rather than theological principle. There is vulnerability in contemplating the face which represents tenderness, nurture, the flame of a mother’s passionate commitment, willingness to suffer for love’s sake, beauty. Many of us, certainly many men, are armored against this. This represents a world of meaning that challenges our habitual stances of control. It returns us to this fundamental level of trusting that emerged when we were scarcely three months old. But as every spiritual director will tell you, there is tremendous potential for healing and conversion in risking a personal return in prayer to this basic level of our humanity. “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Ps. 131)

The Rev. Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Real Americans. Real Christians.

By Peter Carey

In recent days, we’ve heard a great deal about what a “real American” might be, and what a “real American isn’t.” There has been rhetoric from Governor Palin when she has spoken in certain towns that they are “real Americans,” with the accusation that those people who come from urban areas, or who are from the Northeast, may not be “real Americans.” Questions arise about the status of those who don’t pass the test of being a “real American.” Do these people surrender the rights and privileges, and responsibilities of the “real Americans”? Lots to ponder in this election season.

This notion of “real Americans,” reminds me of some of the discussions that we’ve been having in the church. What does it mean to be a “real Christian”? In the Anglican Communion, work is moving along to create a Covenant which will spell out the requirements for being a part of the Anglican Communion. There is an apparent implication that those who are able to “sign on” to the Covenant will be “real Christians.” I suppose those who are unable to sign on to the Covenant will be some other kind of Christian…unreal Christians? I still have some grave concerns about whether this Anglican Covenant will be a good thing on various levels. Along with many others, I am waiting to see how this Covenant comes into being. There are people I respect who fall on both sides of the argument about the efficacy of the Covenant, so I am praying about it.

I wish that we in the Episcopal Church were just a bit bolder about what it is that we do believe; that we could put out our message with more fervor and enthusiasm. For example, I believe that we have allowed those who are outside our church to define us, usually negatively. What if we spoke with more clarity about our dedication to our baptismal covenant, and about our belief in the creeds? I was recently listening to a bishop who was at the Lambeth Conference who said that there were bishops from the Global South who were surprised to hear that Episcopalians actually believe in the resurrection. This came as quite a shock, but it does illuminate the confused messages that we allow to dominate the airwaves about our church.

The discussion about whether the Episcopal Church is orthodox enough gets into the labeling of whether we are “real Christians” or not. What is a real Christian? To those who wonder, I say yes, we do believe in the Trinity, that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Don’t we believe in the sacrament of baptism, in which we die to sin and are raised in Christ? Don’t we believe that through this sacrament we have been received “into the household of God” and that we are called to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood”? (BCP, 308). Not only are we “real Christians” but we may have a unique calling within the body of Christ in this post-modern world. Time will tell.

I am reminded of one of my heroes, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. who considered himself to be a “real American” even, and especially, when he protested injustice in our great country. He considered himself to be a “real Christian,” even when he spoke truth to church bodies that were slow to respond to the injustices of war, racial segregation, and nuclear proliferation. Coffin often said that we need to have a “lover’s quarrel with our country.” In his view, we need to love our country enough to have an engaged quarrel with the forces that would blindly accept the status quo. For Coffin, having a quarrel with one’s country, or one’s fellow citizens, was not a sign of being an “unreal American.” To truly love one’s country there will be times that disagreements will arise, and quarrels can help us to address our corporate blindness and oppressive tendencies.

And then there is the “lover’s quarrel” that is going on in our church. I continue to hope that our diatribes might turn to dialogue, and that our hostile behavior might turn to hospitality. I realize that we can fall into the trap of dehumanizing the other side, and claim that our way is the way of “real Christians.” I also realize that, for too long, those of us who are dedicated to the Episcopal Church (not without quarrels, however!) might need to gird our loins and speak with more boldness about our Faith, and about our practice, and refuse to let others define us. As someone said recently, the notion of “they will know we are Christians by our love,” may not be enough in our present context of 24/7 media saturation. A wise woman once told me that as a preacher I should “always be willing to give an account of the hope that is within me.” Are we, as the Episcopal Church giving that account boldly enough, and with enough gusto?

Doesn’t Jesus call us to do such a thing?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20, NRSV)

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Unanswered prayers

By George Clifford

Benny Hinn, a purported Christian faith healer whose ministry grosses in excess of one hundred million dollars per year, recently held a healing service in Raleigh that thousands attended. Afterwards, the Raleigh newspaper featured a story that did not surprise me. Someone hoping for a healing had attended Hinn’s service but left disappointed. That incident highlights what we already know: prayer is neither as simple nor automatic as a prima facie reading of passages like this one suggest:

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops at Lambeth, and many Anglicans have spent much time praying for Anglican unity, which remains an ever more elusive goal. Globally, many Christians fervently and frequently pray for war to end, a request that would improve the world and keep us or loved ones out of harm’s way. If only life were that easy!

So, what do those troublesome scriptures about the certainty of prayer really mean?

During seminary studies prior to ordination, I learned the orthodox Christian response to that question. God sometimes chooses not to grant our prayer requests because to do so would require God to abrogate human freedom. Sometimes this makes sense. For example, a drug addict suffers the physical, personal, and social consequences of addiction because he or she chose to abuse an addictive substance. The only way that God could end that suffering requires divorcing the action – misusing drugs – from its consequences. Those consequences are generally essential elements of a successful recovery. The addict must hit bottom, or at least an artificially constructed bottom, before intervention and recovery can succeed in freeing the person from addiction. For the addict, the redemptive power of suffering inherently leads to healing.

Generally, I find the explanation of God not granting our petitions to preserve human freedom unsatisfying. Some suffering exceeds any possible redemptive value or other good. Poignant examples of this include genocides like the Holocaust and incurable, debilitating diseases that inflict a good person, innocent child, or entire third world village. Although some good can arise out of such situations, more often unmitigated, non-redemptive suffering continues in the face of persistent, collective prayer. Why would an all-powerful God allow that to happen?

During further studies, I discovered an alternative explanation of continued suffering in the face of persistent, collective, godly prayer. Some contemporary Christian theologians, disproportionately Anglican, propose that traditional ideas about God's omnipotence are incorrect. Perhaps in creating the cosmos, God lost (or never had) the power to do anything at any time. God must therefore rely upon human cooperation to accomplish God's purposes on earth. God abhors evil and suffering, but both persist, even after we persevere in collective prayer, because you and I fail to act as God's hands, feet, and voice.

Attracted to this new understanding of God, I did some research. Only two Bible verses explicitly speak of God's omnipotence denoting a God for whom nothing was impossible. In Luke 1:37, Mary responds to the angel’s annunciation of her imminent pregnancy by saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus saying, “All things are possible with God” (19:26). Like most Christians, I am very skeptical of placing too much emphasis on just a couple of Bible verses. Perhaps both passages reflect a first century cultural and scientific worldview rather than timeless theological insight. I also found that the widespread practice of addressing God as the Almighty might not be a theological statement. Biblical scholars have concluded that ancient Israelites appropriated the term God Almighty, or in Hebrew El Shaddai, from their Mesopotamian neighbors. The Hebrews seem to have used the term to emphasize their monotheism rather than God's omnipotence.

In this post-Christian era, the Church must bravely and honestly admit points at which traditional conceptions of its faith no longer make sense. We do exactly what the Bible seems to tell us to do. We pray. We pray with one another. We pray according to the mind of Christ. Yet God does not always grant our requests. Not squarely acknowledging these difficulties leads us down the path of Benny Hinn, not of Christ Jesus. Too often, I have heard well-meaning but ignorant Christians tell those who grieve that God did not or will not heal a loved one because God respects human freedom. These words hurt rather than comfort. Dishonest or disingenuous answers to faith’s difficulties only push true seekers further from God.

A power exists that changes lives, a power that turns bread and wine into an encounter with absolute love incarnated in human community, a power that transforms despair into hope, defeat into victory, weakness into strength. When our puny human minds believe that we have successfully packaged that power into a well-conceptualized God, such as the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God of Christian orthodoxy, we invariably even if unintentionally imagine an idol. The controversy currently convulsing the Anglican Communion is the living God shattering one such idol as God's people discover that God does not respect gender orientation any more than God respects race, nationality, or gender.

God's continuing activity in the world, and God's open invitation for us to partner with God in that continuing activity, represents the realistic promise of a better future. Prayer makes a difference. The dynamics of prayer may not be as simplistic or automatic as the gospel reading seems to suggest. However, this does not mean that we should cease to pray or abandon our faith. Holocaust survivor Wiesel wrote in his essay, “Why Pray”:

God does not need our prayers. We need them. We need to be able to pray in sincerity and beauty. And the prayer should not be against somebody but always for somebody. That is a true prayer, when it is for some one else, not for yourself.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Beyond "fair"

By Greg Jones

The love of God is not fair. No, the love of God is not fair. It's more than that, it's enormous, it's gracious, it's true, no matter what.

Paul knows this. He writes about the love of God from prison, and while he knows that neither life nor the love of God are fair, they are indeed much more important than that.

In his Epistle to the Philippians (written from prison to a dear congregation who though poor and at the bottom of the Roman ladder support Paul's missionary work) Paul speaks of shared mission in working for the Kingdom of God.

Paul knows he's potentially facing execution for preaching the Gospel, and that the Philippians too face opposition from Rome, doubt, and from the hard road of life itself.

Paul speaks of his suffering, which they too share, not like some Pollyanna who can't see how life isn't fair, but like someone who has decided to offer up his life, his suffering, his pain for the King of Love. Paul's working for the King, and they're killing him for it, and he keeps on keeping on, with a new kind of joy knowing that Christ is working through him.

No, Paul knows that God's love and life in Christ aren't fair, they're bigger than that.

What about us? Are we working for the King? Is anybody opposing us for doing so? Are we working for the King, Or are we more likely working for someone else, and moonlighting on the side for the King when we safely can? Are we working for the King all day long, or only a little bit late in the day?

The good news is hard to understand, but here it is: If we are working for the king at all, because the king is so good, we are one. We strive as one, in this work for the king of creation, and no matter whether we're all day help, or Johnny come latelys, because the King is so good, so gracious, so merciful, we are all one in Him, by the price paid for us through the suffering of Christ Jesus.

This good news, if you can believe it, that God is this gracious, this kind, this loving, even so as to seem unfair by human ways, is the kind of good news that inspires in those who believe it
a gratitude and joy that is hard to understand sometimes.

I know I'm a Johnny come lately to working for the King. I know I'm a sinner. I know I don't deserve the same share of God's love as so many other better people. Yet I have been taught that there's so much of God's love, that even though I don't deserve a lick of it, He offers it anyway. That's the Good News.

Yes the news is Good, and the love of God is enormous, and fairness by our standards just isn't part of the equation. Yet, any who suffer for the Kingdom, but cherish their place in it, know this.

It is pretty radical stuff indeed. So radical that many just can't believe it. Things should be fair. Isn't that what the opponents in today's parable, and the Israelites in Exodus say?

No, those who share in Christ know that fair just isn't gonna happen. But the saints keep going, still, somehow rejoicing in the unfair love of God.

I've told you about my friends who are also working mightily for the King, and who lost a child, our godson. Every year at this time, for about a month, they tell me that a season of grief arrives at their home. Every year, for seven years now, a cloud of tears and heaviness and suffering comes upon them. Every year the old opponent, Death, comes to dwell in their house.

And every year, they suffer. They don't enjoy it. They don't relish it. They don't look forward to it. They suffer.

Yet, they have decided to follow Jesus. They continue to work for the King and his kingdom, and though they suffer, they rejoice in the Hope that God's love is so powerful it will put the broken back together, raise up the dead, and make all things right, somehow, someday.

They have decided to follow Jesus through thick and thin, and they know that to live is Christ. And I'm so glad, because they are showing me, the way Paul showed the Philippians, and Jesus showed us all, that God's love ain't fair, it's better, and it's worth it to give our life to working for Him.

The life of we who work for the King will involve sharing the sufferings of earthly things. It will involve working perhaps harder than others. It will involve knowing that others are working harder than we. It is all based, however, on the knowledge that the abundance of love that God has in store is so huge and beyond our control, that all will be well.

Are you standing idle? Do you not see that the King has come for you? Follow him.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is due on iTunes in November of 2008. Jones is a graduate of Sidwell Friends School, the University of North Carolina, and General Theological Seminary - where he serves as a General Convention-elected trustee.

Are we still in the salvation business?

By Martin L. Smith

Sometimes we wake from a dream with only a strange question as its trace, and the other morning all I could remember as I shaved was a voice asking, “Do you mean business?” It’s a good question to ask looking into one’s own eyes in the mirror, a challenge to weigh the intentionality we are bringing—or not—to everyday living. And it is a question about faith, because for us today faith is about finding meaning in life and for life. Someone who means business today about becoming a genuine believer is conscious of wanting, needing, her life to have meaning. In fact, for Christians in the postmodern world, to find life meaningful as a gift from God through relationship with Jesus is what it means to be saved. Salvation is both to be rescued and fulfilled. Rescued from the spiritual vacuum of meaninglessness, and fulfilled by receiving with the love of God a sense of connectedness, purpose and destiny.

It is a good question to ask about the church. Does the church ‘mean business’? Do we accept that our main business today is with meaning, the struggle to find meaning, and the mission to help people discover the gift of meaning through the good news that has Christ at its heart? Are we still in the business of being saved and saving others? I wonder sometimes because of the negativity or indifference with which many Episcopalians react to the very concept of being saved. Perhaps it’s because they equate being saved with the idea of God reprieving (some of) us from the sentence of eternal damnation in hellfire. In recoil from that idea many seem to think that salvation is a concept best quietly shelved. In how many of our churches is the language of salvation really alive?

A certain historical perspective can help. How did the church mean business at first in the culture in which it grew so rapidly? It brought good news to a civilization haunted by the ravages of mortality, the inevitable decay that reduced human effort to futility. The gospel of the resurrection counteracted all that with an unprecedented sense of God’s abundance of life and his desire to bring human beings into such intimacy with himself that they could experience a fullness of being that was proof against death. How did the church mean business in later centuries? Its good news addressed the nightmare of alienation, the sense that guilt estranged us from the Holy One. The gospel offered a way through it to reconciliation with God, through the sacraments that made Christ’s gift of himself on the cross a contemporary healing power, and through a message of justification as a free gift received by faith.

In our era, mortality and guilt are all too real but they are not what haunts us most. We suffer from a crisis of meaning itself. In the doubting that comes when our defenses are down we wonder whether human consciousness is merely an accidental froth, just a spectacular by-product of evolution in a single primate species. We wonder whether human consciousness has such flawed wiring that civilization is doomed to be short-lived, and we shall bring on our own extinction sometime in the next 10 generations, leaving the planet to wheel on to its own eventual demise in a universe whose origin and destiny is a sheer enigma. Perhaps all human religions, not just some, are the product of sheer projection, imaginary thought-patterns that human beings have fabricated for bonding societies and marking pathways through the joys and pains of human life. In the kind of thinking to which we are vulnerable at 3 in the morning, we find ourselves in the horror of sheer doubt. For us religious doubt isn’t really a matter of questioning this dogma or that. It’s more primal. Have human beings been making it all up? Is there in reality any greater meaning in which my life is taking part?

A church that means business speaks to this crisis of meaning head on and is unafraid to talk of being saved. It encourages people to articulate their doubt, not just about this church teaching or that, but about the value and ultimate meaning of our fragile human lives on this little blue planet circling as a speck in a galaxy that is merely one of billions.

When I hear the gospel addressed to me in the midst of this vertigo of doubt, and accept its poignant insistence that our lives are meaningful because they are what God meant, and that we mean everything to him, and that he means to take us into his life by uniting us to the one who suffered with us and for us, whom he raised from the dead, I can say “This is what it means to be saved, and I want others to receive the same gift.”

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Making sense of animal sacrifice

[Note: Derek’s series “7 Dates Every Anglican Should Know” is on temporary hiatus. His next date and topic are entirely too close to the subject of his dissertation; it will resume whenever he can write something coherent that’s less than ten pages in length…]

By Derek Olsen

Sometimes it takes hearing something in a totally different context to come to a fundamental realization of something that has been before our eyes all the time. As a biblical scholar, part of my work, my competence, is dependent on reading through ancient sources contemporary with the Bible. It helps me get my head into the world that produced the text, the world that the biblical writers took for granted, and helps me get a grasp of what they might have been thinking about or expecting when they used certain words or concepts. Sometimes there are clear connections; sometimes there aren’t. Nevertheless, I’ll often stumble over something that I think I understand from Scripture that an ancient source reveals in a completely different way. That happened to me recently in connection with the concept of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is one of those biblical concepts that make people uncomfortable. We don’t like it, and we’re glad we don’t do it any more. It simply doesn’t make sense from a modern point of view: how is killing an animal going to help anything, and why would that make God happy? We get chapter after chapter in the latter portion of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) that detail exacting rules concerning who does what with various parts of cut-up critters. Needless to say, our lectionaries skip those.

There are even signs that some in the biblical world had some skepticism towards the practice. Psalm 50, for instance, emphasizes moral and ethical acts over animal sacrifice:

7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
"O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
for I am God, your God.
8 I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
your offerings are always before me.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you, *
for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.
13 Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, *
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and make good your vows to the Most High.

The prophets too inveigh against those who kept the sacrificial laws yet neglected the equally divine commands of the law to act with justice and mercy:

"I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

The internal logic of sacrifice just seems off: sins committed are punishable by death and must be washed away with blood (which contains the life). Humans have sinned and the blood-debt must be paid. Therefore, we can substitute an animal and its blood instead of paying our debt ourselves and atoning with our own blood. Is it really moral—let alone praiseworthy—to kill something else in an effort to fix up our mistakes? So what do we do with these passages—reject them as relics of a primitive society or spiritualize them as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving like the psalmist?

I recently got a clue that there’s more to this picture than these conclusions assume; there’s an important point here that we miss and that may well cause us to distort the idea because of where we place the emphasis. I was rereading one of my favorites—Homer’s Iliad—when I came across the section in the first book where Odysseus and his men are sent on a peace mission to an offended priest of Apollo who is causing a god-granted plague to ravage the Achaean armies. It struck me in a new way this time around; here’s the description of their sacrifice:

When prayers were said and grains of barley strewn,
they held the bullocks for the knife, and flayed them,
cutting out joints and wrapping these in fat,
two layers, folded, with raw strips of flesh,
for the old man to burn on cloven faggots,
wetting it all with wine. Around him stood
young men with five tined forks in hand, and when
the vitals had been tasted, joints consumed,
they sliced the chines and quarters for the spits,
roasted them evenly and drew them off.
Their meal now prepared and all work done,
they feasted to their hearts’ content and made
desire for meat and drink recede again,
then young men filled their winebowls to the brim,
ladling drops for the god in every cup.
Propitiatory songs rose clear and strong
until day’s end to praise the god, Apollo,
as One Who Keeps the Plague Afar; and listening
the god took joy. After the sun went down
and darkness came, at last Odysseus’ men
lay down to rest under the stern hawsers.
(Iliad, I.526-46)

The point here isn’t the killing—the point here is the party! In this Homeric sacrifice, the point isn’t that the blood-thirsty god was made happy because a bunch of animals were killed; instead, what happens here is fellowship: enemies unite in common praise of a god, the table is shared, meat consumed, wine quaffed, and mingled voices are raised in song.

I take away two major things from this. First, our focus on death misses what happens after the animal is killed: it becomes food, and the sacrificial act is not completed until it has been consumed. Going back to the Old Testament after this, I realized that this is far more common than we might think; I generally assume that everything got burnt—and there is an important class of whole burnt offerings (holocausts). But far more common are the rites where the family and the priest share together in the sacred meal honoring God in their shared table fellowship. The economic reality of antiquity was that when meat was consumed, chances are it came from a sacrifice. Indeed—this is why eating meat offered to idols was such a big deal in 1st Corinthians: most of the meat for sale in the local markets would have been leftovers from local sacrifices.

Sacrifice then wasn’t just about death and, it makes me wonder if we enlightened moderns couldn’t learn something about death and meat from these ancient practices. It’s not like we don’t kill animals today. Modern meat is produced with ruthless mechanistic efficiency. Death after death after death occurs in our modern meat-packing plants without a moment’s notice or pause. There’s no recognition, no realization, that a life is ending and its lifeblood poured out. Even if we find the logic of sacrifice disturbing, at least it locates meaning in death. We, the enlightened, prefer to ignore it. After all—our meat comes from the supermarket, not from animals.

Second, one of the classic arguments in Christian practice from the time of the Reformation and taken up recently after the Second Vatican Council is the issue what that thing is up there at the front of the church on which we do the Eucharist—and what that means for what we do there. Is it a table or an altar (or something else beyond these)? In recent years, the first has been the overwhelming choice. And yet—this Homeric scene makes me realize that we’re engaging in false dichotomies. The altar, the Eucharist, are multivalent. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and… Homer reminds us that table and altar, meal and sacrifice are not alternatives, rather they interpenetrate one another. The sacrifice is a meal, a sharing in the flesh and wine; the meal is participation in a death, a consuming of something that died on our behalf.

So, next time you hear the Eucharistic prayer, next time you consider the altar-table, next time you share meat and wine with those you love, think on these things. Ponder these mysteries of death in perennial exchange with life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Liberal Christianity's intellectual roots

By Adrian Worsfold

There is a lot of casual writing about apparent liberal Christianity these days, much of it dismissive of course, and over and again seems to me to be based on a fundamental misidentification.

Much of the more responsible and, indeed, progressive theology these days derives from the modernist theologians: Karl Barth (1886-1968), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Every single one of these created a special space for the heart of Christianity, its special message that is said to be different from all other knowledge disciplines. Karl Barth with his one way cultureless and religionless revelation dialectic focused on Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasised the doing of Christ in a busy secular world, Paul Tillich had a Christian systematic answer system for an existential questioning world, for all his demythologising Bultmann revealed the remythologised essential message of the key texts, and Reinhold Niebuhr was a pragmatist for whom the cross was a central ideal and sin was corporate.

These stood as reactions against the optimism of nineteenth and early twentieth century theologians, and these predecessors were liberals indeed. What made them liberals was that they had no divisions between theology and other academic subjects, no special space for revelation to exist that cannot be discovered by other forms of enquiry.

Let's be clear about this today. In the modern university, theology courses (where they exist) may draw upon social sciences and sciences for their supports and explanations, but social sciences and sciences never draw on theology for explanations. Sociology may have Sociology of Religion, but it never asks in all the causal relationships uncovered "what God might be doing here." Yet theologians happily use sociological tools as it suits. Scientists looking at the local and specific environments and their evolving species, and seeing convergence where separate if similar environments produce similar creaturely results never ask "what God may be doing here" as part of the science. It is all one way: there is no need for the God hypothesis.

Theologians became pessimists after the really liberal period of theology, due to the First World War, the economic depression and Nazism. However, they ought to be pessimistic, given the subsequent isolation of their subject.

I was asking myself to which of these modern theologians I come closest, and I concluded none of them. Tillich was once a little influential, until I realised it was a one way street with him - you could not get to Christianity through the existentialism, he was providing it just through different wrapping paper. I couldn't understand Bonhoeffer's contradictory religionless Christianity, or Harvey Cox's derivative. Bultmann seemed not to do what he said he was doing.

But looking at the actual liberals you can go back as far as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who would be the grandfather, if Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1899) is the father, with two sons, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923).

For Schleiermacher, we are all dependent on the infinite, and Jesus is simply the one with the clearest vision, which he was able to communicate supremely. This means he is not special, just more capable, and of course the question always is a) How do you know? and b) What happens if someone else is similar or more clear?

Ritschl rejected metaphysical speculation on the basis that this established nothing. Ritschl did think that Christianity had a core essence. He thought it lay in the building of the anti-nationalist Kingdom of God, which Jesus introduced and we complete. It is grounded in the motive of pure love. Through real pleasure, humans develop the Kingdom under God. Jesus becomes a saviour figure through a direct value judgment by ourselves.

So although Ritschl starts with Christology, it is entirely accessible and humanistic, based on the subjectivity of believers, the Kingdom being built within culture and in history.

Harnack wanted to ground Christianity into history. History was his speciality. Like Ritschl, Harnack wanted to know what the essence of Christianity was. He concluded, as a historian, that Jesus taught the coming of the Kingdom, and not about himself; and that Christianity and the commandment of love relates to higher consciousness under God the Father's rule.

Hellenisation had complicated Christianity, following in the footsteps of Paul and the Gnostics all the way to Chalcedon, and Harnack thought that the historical Jesus was accessible as a rabbi freed from institutions and encrusted doctrines.

There are two huge objections to this, that the later modern theologians knew. One is that such a liberal Jesus is but a reflection in Harnack's mirror, and secondly the historical Jesus is rather more inaccessible than that.

This was Ernst Troeltsch's view too, and yet he maintained the link with history. He was also a historian and sociologist, and they all interplayed with his theology. Like James Martineau (first) and Max Weber, he understood the difference between Church and Sect in Christian expression. Troeltsch also had a category of "mysticism", meaning the religion of the individual and intellectual that is post Enlightenment rather than Church or Sect out of the New Testament.

Troeltsch had a historical method of a) probability, b) the more familiar before the less, and c) the importance of un-isolated phenomena (thus: what is likely to be right, what is generally understood over the bizarre, and things must connect). The result of this method was anti-miracles, not to know Jesus historically well at all (so much is strange) and a relativist view of all religion. There is no method in history for establishing the salvation-superiority of Christianity or any other faith. Christianity did transform via its role in European culture, but this is not the same as saying Christianity is itself superior or that Christ is unique.

My own view comes down to that of Ernst Troeltsch. I think he understands the issues, and he combines the disciplines. I cannot see why theology should be privileged (in any sense) or be inaccessible. Mystery has to be mystery.

The problem for the liberals was that they became associated with evolution, optimism and social progress, that was shattered; but this seems to me to be revisable - it can also be a pragmatic and a limited theology. Indeed, it is, as it asks for nothing special.

These were the real liberals then. I was fascinated to see that British Radical Orthodoxy, that postmodern conservative bubble of ineffective Christendom (John Milbank etc.), now in its new home at Nottingham, has an attack on Troeltsch via news about a new book on the centre's home page. Discussing Nathan Kerr's Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, Nicholas M. Healy includes this about the book:

He sets up the issues by means of a lucid and penetrating analysis of Troeltsch's universalist historicism, which attempts to place Christ and Christianity in the service of the political and social projects of modernity, a form of 'Constantianism'.

The critique of Stanley Hauerwas will surprise some, since in spite of his intent Hauerwas ends up looking much more Troeltschian than one would expect.

Troeltsch clearly remains important; perhaps he is coming back into prominence and will irritate the postmodernists in their world-denying bubble. I skip before even the theological modernists, and Troeltsch seems to have done the work already.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Beyond words

By Martin L. Smith

I’ve been traveling around Turkey, in slow trains and buses that give leisure for musing. Ancient sites passed by and triggered old memories from reading the spiritual classics. I peered through the window at Nevsehir on the way through Cappadocia, which was the see city of the bishop, mystic and theologian Gregory of Nyssa. Later, as I walked through canyons riddled with ancient monasteries and settlements, I got to thinking about what the ancient fathers of the Church can still teach us. We think of theology as the profession of academics, but this wasn’t true in Christianity’s springtime. At first the word theology referred not to a field of study, but first hand spiritual knowledge gained from contemplation. “If you are a theologian, you pray in truth. If you pray in truth, you are a theologian,” wrote Evagrius, one of the pioneers of Christian spirituality.

Today the word ‘theology’ is so embarrassingly degraded that TV pundits often use the term as a scathing reference to abstruse theorizing unmoored in reality. And the word ‘orthodoxy’ has had a similar fate. These days, orthodoxy is almost a synonym for rigid dogmatism and moralism, hidebound ecclesiastical formulas in which changeless truth is supposed to be set in stone. But originally orthodoxy meant the lived experience of being on the right track (orthos) in giving glory (that’s what doxa means) to God, in worshipping and adoring God, in community. And what these pioneers of Christian orthodoxy insisted on, with all the eloquence at their disposal, was the utter impossibility of capturing God in words and images, or grasping God in even the most sublime spiritual experience. God surpasses anything we can possibly say or imagine, and all our experiences of God are merely touching the hem of his garment. God is without rival and nothing is really like God, therefore all language, all symbolism, all our metaphors can only point into further unexplored depths. Christian orthodoxy was—dear God, what has become of it?—a passionate commitment to the mystical core of the Gospel. As such, orthodoxy is the polar opposite of what we call fundamentalism.

As our trains rumbled through the endless valleys of Anatolia, I was running over in my mind some of the meditations that Gregory has left us. He wrote a marvelous commentary on the life of Moses, using it as an allegory of the journey of faith. He comes to that strange vision that Moses has from the cleft in the rock, when he is allowed a fleeting glimpse of God’s backside. This odd detail in the legend Gregory takes as a symbol of the truth that we can only follow God. God is always ahead of us, leading us out of ourselves further into the unexplored territory of his glory. We can only see God’s back, because he is carrying us on his back into mystery. And Gregory taught that even in eternity we will always be on the move as explorers into God, since God is infinite and inexhaustible. There will always be more God to know.


The Church Fathers surprise us. Later I stayed in Sanliurfa, ancient Edessa, a city which embraced Christianity in the second century. I thought about Saint Ephrem who lived and worked here at a time when the city was ringing with a cacophony of rival versions of Christianity (not so unlike modern America.) How did he bear witness as a voice for the orthodox teaching about the Incarnation and the Trinity?

Not through argument, lectures, propaganda, classes. He bore witness through passionate song, writing hundreds of lyrical, fabulously imaginative hymns which were sung in the public squares by a dedicated choir of women. For him, the incandescent truth of the Christian message was best suited to poetry, in the exaltation of music, not prosaic argument. And this is the strange, paradoxical dynamic of the theology of the ancient fathers. At one and the same time they are passionate about the absolutely mysterious character of God, the utter impossibility of defining him, and yet they feel authorized and inspired to use a vast array of imaginative, even outrageous symbols and metaphors, to point to the mystery. Orthodoxy is the paradoxical state of being both blinded by the dazzling darkness of God’s unknowability and of being thrilled by God’s encouragement and permission, through the Incarnation, to deploy every kind of metaphor and poetic symbol to kindle the heart’s awareness of the attractiveness of God’s beauty and power and love. Ephrem’s poetry, like Dante’s, is ablaze with the erotic audacity of lovesong. We pray for God to send laborers into his harvest. Are we praying for spiritual poets, prophets and visionaries, who will help us set our speech about God on fire again today? Or will we as Episcopalians succumb to the fate of becoming—you know—the bland leading the bland?

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Independence and interdependence

By N.J.A. Humphrey

The Feast of St. Benedict falls every year on the 11th of July, exactly a week after the 4th of July, our Independence Day. In some ways, one could make the case that these two commemorations stand for opposite values: Independence Day is about shaking off tyrannical authority, for self-determination, for freedom—or, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” St. Benedict, on the other hand, is the founder of western monasticism; his Rule stresses the absolute authority of an abbot over his monks, the dependence of the monk on his community, and the rootedness to be found in one place until death. In his Rule, we find the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is all about freedom; Benedict’s Rule is all about service.

But do obedience, stability, and conversion of life necessarily stand in the way of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In pondering this question, a phrase from Morning Prayer wafted into my mind: “whose service is perfect freedom.” I looked it up and found this collect:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Reading these words, I could imagine soldiers on both sides of the conflict in the Revolutionary War praying this collect before marching into battle. There is a militaristic ring to these words—“assaults,” “enemies,” “defense,” “adversaries,” “might.” And yet, this prayer is titled in our Prayerbook A Collect for Peace. I was reminded that the first battles of the War for American Independence were fought at Lexington and, ironically, a town called Concord.

I find this collect very challenging because the prayer is so realistic: even when we want peace, we will have enemies. Yet, even when our adversaries have power over us, if we trust in God, we do not have to fear that power. We can choose, instead, to serve God, in “whose service is perfect freedom,” and this is true whether we are at peace or at war, whether we are on the “right” side or the “wrong” side, a “winner” or a “loser” in the various battles we wage, or those that are waged against us. We do not need to participate in the violent counter-assaults and power-plays of life, if we find our freedom in serving the God who is the author of peace and lover of concord.

Ah, but where does any of this leave us with Independence Day and St. Benedict, with the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness versus the monastic values of obedience, stability, and conversion of life? We are left, I think, always in that creative tension between independence and interdependence. Responsible Christian discipleship and healthy Christian community depend upon these two things. The tension between independence and interdependence never fully resolves, but resolution isn’t the point. The point is for us to pursue true happiness, which is found in the service of God—and God is best served when we serve others, and allow others to serve us.

I had the privilege of living with some Benedictine Monks over a couple of summers in college and seminary, and I remember celebrating both the 4th of July and the 11th of July with thanksgiving and prayer. The monks who offered me hospitality knew what it meant to take responsibility for their own lives of faith and to rely on each other to sustain a community of faith that was both contemplative and active. It was at that monastery that I first began to discern the shape of my Christian vocation to priesthood, and I recall those days with gratitude and fondness.

This July, I am looking forward to celebrating both Independence Day and “Interdependence Day,” as I have come to think of the feast of St. Benedict, for each of us needs to be both independent and interdependent in order to grow into the full stature of Christ as we serve God and each other, and in that service, to pursue the kind of happiness that alone leads to perfect freedom.

The Rev. Nathan J. A. Humphrey is curate of St. Paul’s, K Street in Washington, D. C.. He writes on issues of ecclesiology at http://communioninconflict.blogspot.com.

The Bible, and other tales of violence and redemption

By R. William Carroll

"Then promise me, if you should become queen, to GIVE ME YOUR FIRSTBORN CHILD. “

“Who knows whether that will ever happen,” thought the miller's daughter, and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the little man what he wanted, and for that he once more spun the straw into gold.

And when the king came in the morning, and found all as he had wished, he took her in marriage, and the pretty miller's daughter became a queen.

A year later, she brought a beautiful child into the world, and she never gave a thought to the little man. But suddenly he came into her room, and said, “Now, give me what you promised.”

The queen was horror-struck, and offered the little man all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the little man said, “NO, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”

(For this translation, I’ve adapted a little.)

That’s not how the story ends, of course. The young woman gets out of this horrible deal by guessing that the little man’s name is Rumpelstiltskin. Not all the Grimm’s fairy tales end so happily. It is, in fact, amazing to me that we share some of these stories with children. Perhaps it’s a way to talk with them about the violence that pervades our world. Our world, after all, is one in which children are still bought and sold. In any case, these stories are no more violent than the popular entertainments that charm us today.

Bible stories can be similarly horrifying. Just look at a few from Genesis. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to a foreign king. Lot’s daughters seduce their father. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, so Esau tries to kill him. Even stories like Noah’s Ark are hardly G-rated. Who can really dwell on the way it begins? Who could share that with a child? And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” In the flood story, God proposes to kill’em all and start over.

Perhaps we have told this story to a child—even if we do race through it to get to the good parts. There are churches that relish the horror in this kind of story, and which are not afraid to use it to scare the hell out of kids, as well as adults. But we Episcopalians don’t tend to dwell on it. And properly so. We prefer the smelly menagerie, the bird with an olive branch, and the rainbow.

And yet, if the problematic beginning of this myth remains unspoken or repressed, the story is robbed of its power. We also fail to come to an adult understanding of it, since it is ripped out of its context in Genesis—a saga of creation, fall, and decline, as well as God’s unbreakable commitment to save the world. Repressing the story’s beginning also allows us to forget which particular sin it is that calls down God’s displeasure. It is the VIOLENCE of humankind that provokes the flood. We need to know that our violence is offensive to God. That it reeks in God’s nostrils. And that God is offended enough by our violence that, but for God’s goodness, God could be tempted to wipe the slate clean.

If we don’t hear this, the promise at the end makes little sense. Why else does God make a covenant with all flesh and set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of this relationship? Except to show us that God will never abandon us to the ways of sin and death. The remarkable thing in the story, which is like other flood myths of the ancient Near East in many respects, is this: God finds a way out of the cycle of violence, and promises never again to respond to our violence by destroying the world.

If we’re honest, we know that even a child is aware of violence. Unless of course we romanticize that child to the point of dangerous denial. In the schoolyard if not the family, the child is initiated into our rituals of domination, soul-murder, and exclusion. Even a child needs to hear that this violence is offensive to God. That God rejects this violence. And that God is not powerless to act.

Is there a danger in speaking thus of God? Does not the story project our own revenge fantasies on to God and involve God in the very violence it is trying to confront? Are we not in fact portraying God in an unworthy manner? Yes, of course. But there is an even greater danger in not speaking. All our words are inadequate. But it is only through stories—broken, human stories—that we can we convey something of the Holy One who creates and saves the world. And the realism of these stories draws us in and offers us new possibilities. The overall Biblical story, for all its contradictions and problems, testifies to God’s faithfulness, even when we have gone astray. We return to it again and again, so that we may wrestle with the loving God who meets us there.

I’ve dwelt a bit on the dark underbelly of Noah’s Ark, because I think an adult grappling with this story sheds some light on Paul’s theology of the atonement. The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice is often presented, especially by evangelical Christians, as a kind of war between God’s justice and mercy. God wants to condemn the world and everyone in it, but saves a few, because Christ was punished in their place on the cross. The worst of the lot are the “five point Calvinists,” who believe that God died only for the chosen, the elect. The rest of humanity will burn in hell forever, just as surely as the untold multitudes whom God drowned in the days of Noah.

I believe this is blasphemy—which is untrue to Paul’s Gospel and fails to account for the point of the flood story. The problem with many so-called evangelicals is that they are not evangelical enough. The evangel is the Gospel, and it is good news for fallen humanity.

As in Genesis, Paul believes that God has found a better way out of the predicament of human violence and sin. Rather than purging the world of evildoers, God has chosen to make sinners holy through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has chosen the one man Jesus, rejected and despised by others, so that in him, God might choose us all. As Rene Girard and James Alison have taught us, Jesus is the sacrifice who brings the whole system of sacrifice and victimization to an end. The message of Romans is about God’s righteousness and mercy, which restores fallen sinners to fellowship with God. It is a direct corollary of the “covenant with all flesh” that God makes with Noah and his descendents. God has always desired, as the prophet Ezekiel teaches, “not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner turn from wickedness and live.”

Jesus Christ is God’s human offer of mercy, in a world in which we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is no conflict between God’s mercy and justice. They are one and the same, and they come together in the righteousness of God, which operates not by revenge but by forgiveness. The same forgiveness which Jesus lived out throughout his ministry. Could we choose to reject this offer and forever exclude ourselves from God’s presence? I suppose maybe we could. But I believe that, in the end, NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES.

There is Good News hidden in the doctrine of sin. Sin is the great equalizer. Sin levels the playing field and throws us back on God’s loving kindness. In Paul’s vision, Jews are no better and certainly no worse than Gentiles. In other words, insiders are neither better nor worse than outsiders. We have been called but not because we deserve it. We have been chosen—not for privilege but for service.

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson.

Trinity Sunday reflection

By Greg Jones

What is god but Creator? What is creating but reaching out? What is reaching out but connecting beyond self? What is connecting beyond self but loving others?

Creating, reaching, connecting, loving -- these are what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all about. It's what God is. It's who God is. It's how God is. It's what God does, and why. The three-in-oneness of God is how the followers of Jesus describe what we experience about God - to describe how God creates, reaches, connects and loves us.

What Jesus teaches his followers is that by following Him under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: we will create – within and beyond; we will reach – within and beyond; we will connect – within and beyond; we will love – within and beyond, and that's how we'll follow Him into unity with God.

That's how we become members, joined members, connected parts, of the one being that is God whose will is to be one in all. That's the mystery of the faith expressed by Trinity. We mean that in God's wholeness – in God's own identity and self – there is an aspect of community – an aspect of family – an aspect of loving mutual relationship

Or to put it another way – in the Kingdom of God – where we are joined in loving relationships – where we are joined in gracious, merciful and committed relationships where we quite literally lose ourselves in order to find ourselves – where we become one with our neighbors and the whole world we're living in – that's where we are most like God.

What Jesus Christ said and did – was to say: God is like a family – and it's an open family. God, through Christ by the power of the Spirit, has invited us into himself. Indeed – this is the heart of the Christian message since the birth of the Church.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Resurrection. Not resuscitation

By George Clifford

In my teens, I thought some about heaven and decided that I wanted no part of it. Heaven connoted the place that good people, or Christians, or some other select group went when they died. Although I did not think of heaven as a physical place, my thoughts were quite foggy about what people did in heaven. Our cultural stereotype of angelic beings strumming harps in a place evocative of an impressionist painting left me, a non-musician, unimpressed. Whatever enjoyment one might derive from harp playing seemed rather limited. (So much of what I found fun consisted of activities that someone had proscribed, activities not likely allowed in heaven.) Even if one could stretch that enjoyment out for a few million years, what happened when boredom set in? Also, as a high school student during the turbulent 1960s, I had my first exposure to Marx’ critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. Marx, with considerable insight, recognized that capitalists often relied upon the Christian promise of heaven as pie in the sky as an inexpensive way to pacify their exploited workers.

When I began to self-identify as a Christian, I struggled to find a meaningful concept of heaven, believing the idea integral to Christianity. In seminary, those struggles became more intense as I grappled with how to comfort the bereaved. Spatial definitions of heaven never resonated with me. Theological descriptions of a spiritual existence outside of time and space sounded like code words that theologians used when they had no more of an idea about heaven than I did. The prospect of endlessly enjoying God struck me as vaguely analogous to harp playing: no matter how wonderful the experience, after some extended duration – no years with which to measure since heaven existed outside of time – I would probably tire of it. Every joy and pleasure I have ever experienced has waned with the passing of time. The thought of watching an endless sunset from a comfortable chair situated on the porch of a house on a semi-tropical island, sipping the beverage of my choice, surrounded by loved ones, and engaged in stimulating conversation often holds much appeal. However, I know that after about a week of similar moments spent cherishing actual sunsets I am ready to pick up the pace of life and to seek new pleasures.

Gradually, I realized that ideas associated with resuscitation and not resurrection shaped most of my thinking about heaven. Resuscitation restores a dead body to life, as when timely defibrillation, perhaps accompanied by the administration of CPR, restores a heart attack victim to life. In the Bible, we read about the resuscitation of the widow of Nain’s son, of Lazarus, and of a man who fell asleep during a sermon (a symbolic warning more preachers need to heed?). This tendency of humans to think about heaven in terms of resuscitation instead of resurrection did not greatly surprise me. Humans can only think in human, finite terms. We have experience of this life, not of heaven. Consequently, talk of heaven and resurrection generally sounds more like resuscitation than genuine resurrection. Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus portrayed in the gospels seems so paradoxical. In those narratives, Thomas touches Jesus but Jesus passes through solid walls; Jesus eats but appears as if out of nowhere. Those paradoxes force us, when honest, to put aside our finite understandings and to acknowledge our inability to say much about resurrection.

Perhaps, at most, we can affirm three truths about resurrection. First, whatever resurrection denotes is dynamic not static. Busy, stressful lives may cause us to yearn for static pleasures. Newton’s first law – every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed – can seem true of humans. There are times when I feel that Onslow, a character in the British TV comedy As Time Goes By Keeping Up Appearances, seems to lead an idyllic existence, spending his days sleeping late, watching the telly, drinking beer, and playing the horses. No problem is of sufficient urgency or importance to disturb or to interrupt him. For me, Onslow models inertia at least as well as any non-comatose human. Unfortunately for those who long for constancy, quantum physics maintains that Newton’s laws are not completely correct. Stasis is more apparent than real, energy and matter are integrally related, and dynamism permeates the universe. Life itself is constantly changing. The dominant metaphor for what follows resurrection, new life, offers no reason to think the future will be more static than is the present. Because this life is the only life that we know, attempts to describe new life – or heaven – necessarily yield ideas that resemble resuscitation more than authentic new life.

Second, whatever resurrection may denote, resurrection is good. Jesus, the one by whose name I call myself and on whom I try to model my life, experienced resurrection and points us toward resurrection,. This world in which problems seem to outnumber solutions needs hope. The media, and too many preachers, regularly recite depressing litanies of the personal problems and social evils that afflict us. Even more depressing, usually when I manage to extinguish one fire in my life, a new one has already begun to blaze. When I begin to treat some people more justly, I find I am exploiting others. When peacemakers negotiate an end to one war, another war inevitably erupts. When scientists find a cure for one disease, bacteria and viruses morph and new diseases appear. Thank God, the world is dynamic and resurrection gives us a glimpse of a better future.

Finally, resurrection is for today. I still do not know what to think about heaven. I remain uncertain about life after death. I wonder what God's justice and love hold for the future. Occasionally I ponder those questions. More frequently, I contemplate how best to describe resurrection, what human words, what finite concepts, can communicate that ineffable mystery. Daily, however, I live with the knowledge that Jesus’ disciples, hundreds of them according to the scriptural narratives, personally experienced Jesus’ resurrection. Without those disciples, the Church would not exist. Their experience of resurrection means that God has not let go of the world, that God remains engaged with us and the world, committed to establishing justice and to building a community of genuine love. I, belonging to that nascent community experience this same resurrection through the Church, its people and its sacraments as I seek to love mercy, do kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This sure and certain hope forms the trajectory of my life today. Tomorrow belongs to God.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School. He taught philosophy at the Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.

Affluent beggars

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Leafing through this week's classifieds in New York magazine, I came across the following ad in the real estate section:

WE NEED HELP BUYING AN APT on the UWS (editor's note: that's Upper West Side), 3bd2bath. YOU are a philanthropic, wealthy person who would not miss a million bucks and would be interested in donating (or even investing) in a highly targeted manner: to my family. WE are a wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community, is entrenched, happy and desperately wants to remain on the UWS (lest the city lose yet another wonderful family to the burbs). We can afford 600-700k, so you see the predicament. Can you help us??

Well, I thought, here are some grown-ups who believe in Santa Claus. So this is what Manhattan real estate prices have come to, that people who can afford to pay more than half a million for an apartment are looking for handouts. There's an absurd Little Match Girl tone to the whole ad: urban Mom, Dad, and kids standing on the sidewalk outside the Upper West Side's elegant prewar buildings, filled with longing, fingers numb in the cold. In a borough where many pay exorbitant sums to live in apartments not much bigger than a sectional sofa, the ad's Manhattan real estate envy is familiar to most of us, writ large. Now, there's something to be said for the idea that not every condo and coop in the city should end up owned by Wall Street people or international real estate investors. And with the richest two percent of people on earth owning more than half of the household wealth, maybe it's inevitable these days that middle-class people will feel poor. Maybe soon we'll be seeing similar requests from people asking for a Sub Zero kitchen ("WE are fabulous cooks!") or a Bose stereo ("WE only listen to classical music played on authentic period instruments!") or a $4,000 Capresso cappuccino maker ("WE only brew coffee with whole, fair-trade beans!").

I couldn't help noticing the theology here. In explaining their "predicament," the ad's writers appeal to the good old Protestant work ethic: they are a "wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community." It's the word "wonderful" that got to me. Here's a chance, during this Advent season, to consider the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus. We are brought up to believe that if we're good boys and girls, we'll get everything on our Christmas list. Most of us recognize, by the time we reach adulthood, that life just doesn't add up that way. "Wonderful" people, we discover, experience suffering, disappointment, and loss. There are "wonderful" people living in cities and suburbs -- in New York and all over the world -- who who go to bed hungry, lack basic health care, and have no roof at all over their heads, let alone a home with two bathrooms. Talk about predicaments.

No wonder the story of a holy child born in a filthy manger touches us so deeply. We are invited to imagine, in the midst of so much hardship, the presence of joy. We're reminded that we can avoid experiencing a kind of envy that is not only unappealing, but painful, if we turn our gaze to people who have less than we do and focus on reaching out with prayers and help. And in doing so we feel blessed -- no matter where we live.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst, is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Confronting evil

By Jennifer McKenzie

Last night at my church we began a forum series called ‘Evil: Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer.’ There is a technical term in theological circles for this kind of study. It’s called ‘Theodicy.’ Basically, theodicy is the religious-philosophical engagement of trying to reconcile how evil can be at work in the world when we believe that there is a loving, benevolent God in charge. Theodicy takes for granted that both evil and God exist – but what is not taken for granted is that we often lack an understanding of how the two interplay and what exactly our role is in the struggle against evil forces: cosmic, systemic, and personal.

OK, so that’s the intellectual description of our six-week forum. But here’s the real deal: if you want people to sit up and take notice and to come to the darned thing, you have to advertise. And if you are going to advertise a series like that you can’t go putting up a sign that reads, “Theodicy forum.” Because if you did people will respond with either complete disinterest or they will cock their heads ever so slightly and go, “huh?” Either way the result would be the same: no one except a couple of theology geeks would show up. So, the couple of us theology geeks who are taking the lead in presenting this series made the decision to hang an attention-grabbing banner on the fence of the church that reads, “EVIL: Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer.” The word EVIL was in huge bold white letters that spanned the top line of the black banner. The other words were in a smaller font that ran just underneath. We knew it would be edgy but we also knew it would be clear. That was our goal. Our hope and expectation was that we would draw a sizable number of folks from outside of the church – in other words, that this would be a topic of interest to those not even connected with the church so that they would be drawn in for a reasoned, careful discussion of something that is mysterious yet prescient. If the first night of the series is any indication, then our expectations were met. However, the unintended consequence was that the sign has caused a bit of an uproar from within the congregation and staff. People are polarized over this banner that hangs on the church fence in very public view that reads in big bold letters, “EVIL.”

Well, on the one hand, “duh…” but on the other hand, why the uproar? Really. Is it just because some folks think the banner is in poor taste? Or do more folks think that the subject matter is in poor taste? One thoughtful and sincere colleague asked, “Would you have hung that banner up at Christmas?” Well, no. But then again neither would I have hung an Easter banner up at Christmas, or a Christmas banner up at Easter. But that’s not the point, and I think her question gets at the REAL issue: As Christians in this day and age, we want to focus on a God who is loving and benevolent. We want a feel-good experience of church. And I agree that is important – but not in isolation and not in a way that fails to acknowledge the whole truth. I think that the real problem behind the ‘shock’ of this banner is that in the church we tend to want to make nice, and to focus only on the good. But to do so completely ignores the very real fact that evil does exist and that we are frequently co-opted by evil. We are only human after all, and as St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “…I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:14b-15, 18b-19)

Archbishop William Temple once wrote, “The church is the only society that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” At Christ Church we have taken that saying and simplified it to say, “We exist for those who are not here yet.” I think this is a really good way for us as a church to understand who we are and who we are called to serve. And, if we take this mantra to heart then we must realize that to ignore the reality of Evil is to ignore the reality of the world that most people live in today: a world of deception, of addiction, of chaotic lives and of subjection to political powers that lack integrity and that are engaged in way of terrorism.

For example, we were privileged last night at our first forum on this topic to hear from Fr. Joseph Garang-Atem, a Sudanese Anglican priest and from The Reverend Lauren Stanley, an Episcopal missionary to the Sudan from the Diocese of Virginia. They spoke to us about the atrocities of the genocide in the Sudan and the church’s response to it. Interestingly, it was the ‘outsiders’, the ones who came to this forum who have never been to our church before, who were most engaged in the dialogue with our guests.

Let’s face it churchy folks, Evil is real and persistent, and it is a force that must be reckoned with – both from within the church and from without. Think about the work of Ghandi who stood against the evil of racism and social class in South Africa and among the people of India and who fostered inter-religious dialogue, who even died for the cause – and while great awareness was raised and changes initiated, racism still persisted. Think about Archbishop Desmond Tutu who later similarly stood against the apartheid that continued in South Africa and in response fostered the work of the truth and reconciliation commission. Neither of these men would deny that there is a force of Evil at work in the world and that there is a clear need for the church to respond.

There is no nice way to say it. If we ignore the reality of evil then rather than embracing the notion that ‘we exist for those who are not here yet’, we are in fact embracing a self-serving attitude of a feel-good religion. And a feel-good religion is a mostly impotent religion that will find great difficulty in offering healing, support, and consolation to the multitudes around the world and just outside our doors who are hurting and even dying in the face of Evil.

The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie is on the staff of Christ Church, Alexandria, Va, and keeps the blog, The Reverend Mother.

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